Editor’s note (3/26/20): In light of recent sexual assault allegations made against Mark Kozelek, the author renounces his endorsement of Sun Kil Moon. You can read more about these allegations here.”
It is hard to take anyone seriously who describes an album as an “experience.” Descriptors like that tend to be red flags of a deeply personal, yet not necessarily relatable connection to an album that makes it difficult for a fan to introduce it to others. Rarely, this label can be rightfully earned by an album when it transcends being listened to and becomes lived in by the listener.
Sun Kil Moon’s newly-released “Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood” accomplishes this very feat.
Sun Kil Moon is the name under which former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek has been releasing music since the early 2000s. “Common as Light and Love” is Kozelek’s eighth release under this name and his longest release by far. With its sixteen tracks ranging anywhere from six to twelve minutes in length, the album clocks in at two hours and nine minutes in length. This is not an album that is easily digestible, especially when listened to in its entirety, and it may prove difficult for some to get into for this reason.
What exactly makes it so compelling then? On “Common as Light and Love,” we see Kozelek perfecting a songwriting style introduced with his last album “Universal Themes.” This style, defined by entrancing, repetitive instrumentals and personal, stream-of-consciousness style lyrics, makes Kozelek’s songs unlike any other.
This style is well encapsulated on “Chili Lemon Peanuts,” in which a tight, rolling groove of drums, bass, and synth carries Kozelek’s borderline rap vocals steadily and entrancingly forward.
The lyrical content here is Kozelek in his stream-of-consciousness style and habit of breaking the the fourth wall. (“I’m on the front porch staring at this old dusty bible and I’m writing lyrics.”)
This is where the true rarity of this album lies: the lyrics are often personal to the point of mundanity—but Kozelek offers listeners residence in his own head. This creates a powerful means for experiencing another human perspective or even escaping their own.
Kozelek’s headspace is not always a happy place to be. In recent years, Kozelek has made news for his rude, offensive, and filterless demeanor, especially with members of the music press.
This bitterness appears often on “Common as Light and Love,” but rarely does it come across as entirely baseless whining. Much of the complaining done on the album is against societal ailments that Kozelek has meditated on following their growth in the public conscience in the past year. These include gun control (“This sick epidemic that’s fucking up our sense of safety and our community,” from “Bergen to Trondheim”), transgender bathroom laws (“But you won’t let a transgender use a bathroom of their choice?/What kind of bullshit is that, you good old hillbilly boys,” in “Lone Star”), and of course, Donald Trump. (“When Donald Trump becomes president/Blame it on Facebook [ […] ] and every other thing that has turned this country/Into a bunch of dumbed-down slaves of technology,” also in“Lone Star.”)
Kozelek’s age, uncommon lifestyle as a musician, and hardline opinions can be off-putting to a young listener that has little in common with someone like him. This is exactly why the album’s ability to draw you into his head becomes so captivating. The differences between your life experiences and beliefs and Kozelek’s lead to an expectation of little common ground upon initial listening, but this is what makes Kozelek an ideal person to be making this kind of music. When you do start to realize how Kozelek’s life, one that is likely radically different from your own, turns out to have surprising parallels to your own, the beauty of what this music has the ability to say about the human experience begins to become clear.
As brilliant and unique as this album is, it does have weaknesses, most of which are related to its sheer length. Kozelek’s lyrical style that is initially entrancing doesn’t benefit from the extended period of listening required to get through this album in one sitting. The personal, minutia-intensive subject matter can begin to feel like rambling self-indulgence.
“Common as Light and Love” sees Kozelek reflecting on countless news items from the past year, and these reflections are some of the album’s best moments, but when we hear Kozelek reflecting about terror attacks on “Bastille Day,” his sentiments don’t seem different enough from those expressed on songs like “Bergen to Trondheim” to warrant so much further pondering, especially to a listener’s likely-weary ears when this song appears at over an hour and a half into the album.
It is well-advised to listen to the album over several sessions to prevent Kozelek’s musings from starting to sound like your weird uncle who never shuts up, drunkenly mumbling about what he saw on the news.
“As Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood” is certainly not for everyone, but its importance should not be understated. It is exceptionally rare, especially within the realm of music, that we get such a realistic look into someone else’s head. With most albums, the enjoyment is found in the listener’s ability to relate to the songs and the songwriter themselves. Here, that enjoyment is complicated by the grimness, reality, and sheer honesty of Kozelek’s songs, but the unexpectedness and even uncommonness of common ground with him makes that ground infinitely more meaningful.
We are living in an age where an inability to empathize and see other points of view is creating divides wider than ever. Say what you will about who Kozelek is, but he doesn’t pretend to be anyone he isn’t, and on this album he opens himself up entirely, exposing everything for people to critique, gawk at, and, hopefully, understand.
He lets the audience do the work of finding meaning and understanding for themselves, and it is that active participation that makes this album such a special and potent exercise in empathy.