Premature Evaluation: Sun Kil Moon Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood
Time for some game theory: Mark Kozelek is a closeted Twitter addict. I don’t expect to see him get some kind of Ted Haggard-esque comeuppance where his private accounts are exposed and he’s caught in the act of doing the exact, supposedly shameful thing he so staunchly advocated against. But for a guy who dedicates a whole lot of time ranting about thin-skinned dudes addicted to social media, his own jarring shift in lyrical approach started right around the rise of Twitter, and the evolution of its discourse has paralleled his own. And now, with his unconscionably long double album, Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood, Kozelek has finally perfected its specific diction and rhythms.
Sincere acknowledgments of tragic events and celebrity deaths inevitably read like someone patting themselves on the back with one hand and clicking over to his mentions with the other. Any mention of a well-earned success can be seen as humblebragging by someone in a grumpy mood. Friends, colleagues, and especially girlfriends seemingly double as mute character witnesses when someone’s reputation needs repair. It’s easy to dig through the past and confirm any opinion you have about somebody, especially if it’s negative. I’ve taken to reading tweets with particularly ridiculous headlines in “new Sun Kil Moon album voice.” Every song here essentially takes the form of “read: thread,” and trying to form some sort of coherent worldview from the totality of his scattered yarns, obscure references, notebook scribbles, random allegiances, and irreconcilable vendettas is utterly futile.
And that’s even if you’re a Kozelek fan who comes into this thing in good faith. I understand that there are a lot of people who think that covering Kozelek is tantamount to condoning his past actions, and with the most recent work from Swans, Migos, Surfer Blood, Azealia Banks, Slayer, Future, and Kodak Black, there have been many opportunities for people to fine-tune the calculus that determines the point where “mute” becomes “block,” when it’s simply impossible to listen to an artist or know when they’ve been deemed worthy of revisitation. I’m fairly certain that no album in 2017 will get shit on to the same degree as Common As Light, and that’s even taking into account the fact that Kozelek hasn’t done anything particularly egregious in 2017. In fact, when Dave Longstreth and Father John Misty took their unintentional heel turns a few weeks back, it served to remind me, “When was the last time Mark Kozelek said or did something stupid?” Michael Jackson is pretty much the only musician whose death didn’t bother him in the slightest and “He’s Bad” barely moved the needle. Maybe it was outrage fatigue; maybe it was just an experiment to see if he would stop doing dumb shit if it didn’t get a response.
But writers are angry in 2017 and less likely to tolerate two hours’ worth of ramblings from a self-described bloated, 49-year-old white dude. And the hubris of creating a double album in a style that’s exhausting even on a song-to-song basis opens up the possibility that he might be the rare addition to Metacritic’s slim list of musicians whose albums have gotten generally unfavorable reviews this decade, joining Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, V-Nasty, Richard Ashcroft, and a British lad band named Viva Brother who statistically made the most critically reviled album of the 2010s (who knew?).
Hell, even I didn’t have plans to bother with this thing, albeit for a fairly mundane reason: Kozelek was boring the shit out of me. His 2015 LP, Universal Themes, was a return to the high-variance songwriting of Among The Leaves, ranging from absolutely stunning (“Birds Of Flims”) to unlistenable (“Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues”). But he really lost me with his full-length collaboration with Justin Broadrick of Jesu, a meeting of two artists stuck in a serious rut who only managed to dig themselves in deeper.
The singles from Common As Light weren’t particularly promising either: I gave the first couple of minutes of “I Love Portugal” a shot before I realized it was a rewrite of “I Love My Dad,” but whereas anyone could reflect on their complicated familial relationships on the latter, I’ve already heard enough of Mark Kozelek’s thoughts on ceviche. Meanwhile, “God Bless Ohio” sounded like a return to the immersive, journalistic reminiscences of Benji, but it also felt like a recycling of parts from “Micheline” and “Carry Me Ohio.” As he is wont to do, Kozelek announced this album long before it was actually finished, and even as someone who thinks Benji is his only album that doesn’t contain some material worth fast-forwarding through, Common As Light held about as much appeal as another season of Arrested Development.
And then it streamed last Wednesday, and all of a sudden became appointment listening. The first description I heard: “Fascinatingly bad.” Frinkiac was consulted and Kozelek was still Abe Simpson yelling at a cloud, Krusty The Clown wondering when his edgy new routine lost the crowd, and a washed-up Be Sharps trying to wring a song out of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. We’ve all heard “Adam Granofsky Blues” or whatever serves as the nadir of recent Sun Kil Moon; how could this be worse?
Common As Light at least begins with a welcoming gesture in “God Bless Ohio.” And it sounds much more impactful than it did late in 2016; at a time when writers are struggling to understand and convey the despondence of the Rust Belt in a humanistic way, “God Bless Ohio” is a reminder that few are better than doing this exact thing than Mark Kozelek. He doesn’t have to fake any lived-in experience or curiosity about what an upbringing in a place like Massillon feels like, and the gray, repetitive ambience accurately recreates a state of driving through shuttered warehouses, abandoned fields, and resilient homes while remembering the hideous sight of an old tattoo on his grandfather’s sagging arm and the smell of Velveeta cheese and salisbury steak TV dinners.
But somehow, I hadn’t even noticed the weirdness of “God Bless Ohio.” The drum and bass intro sounds like a dub track. There’s a theremin on the chorus and some prickly dissonance in his typically mellifluous fingerpicking patterns. All of which serves as foreshadowing for an album that is unmistakably Sun Kil Moon yet also one of the most singular and bizarre listens from a known artist in 2017.
I can’t quite say I’ve never heard anything like this. For one thing, in the past five or so years, there are maybe 20 or 30 people in my life whom I’ve heard talk more than Mark Kozelek. When you’re listening to Sun Kil Moon, you know you’re listening to Sun Kil Moon, unless it happens to be an incredibly good impersonator. I have also heard Lil B, Wesley Willis, and Kool Keith, so there is precedent for the kind of thing Koz is doing here.
Read that last sentence again.
Kozelek is basically doing a full-on spoken-word/sing-rapping thing now, unbeholden to the demands of cadence or metaphor or melody. While it first appeared that Universal Themes was the point where his real-time narration had gone too far, it was actually just a transition to Common As Light, in the same way that Among The Leaves and his Desertshore and Album Leaf collaborations foreshadowed Benji. And while there are still plenty of his nylon-string guitar filigrees (“this part sounds like a beautiful Cameron Crowe film score, Jimmy Page-influenced or Nancy Wilson” he sings during “Lone Star”), he’s playing a lot of bass and rudimentary synthesizers. “Lone Star” brought forth the heretofore unimaginable circumstance where I can barely make out Kozelek’s vocals because the bass is making my car speakers blow out.
Even with the reliably tasteful drumming of Steve Shelley, most of Common As Light’s first half has a kind of minimalist, tick-tocky sound similar to Kool Keith circa First Come, First Served or Matthew, a period where he did everything possible to chase out the “alternative” fan base he picked up during an unexpected brush with relevancy. Though diehards will swear by some of this material, it wasn’t always an artistically rewarding time for Keith, and likewise, Kozelek is threading a thin needle here. It doesn’t work at all when he wants to get serious or gets on a run that might be interpreted as him trying to prove he’s a good guy, even though I don’t think Mark Kozelek gives half a shit if people forgive him. If this album fails to reach the transgender community, just know that “Lone Star” outright states they can get into Sun Kil Moon shows for free now and use any bathroom they want. At least in North Carolina. Even if it is out of the kindness of his heart, there’s a fraction of it sourced from his desire to let that state’s “hillbillies” and “rednecks” know that he’s not done fucking with them (Kozelek self-identifies as a “hick,” for what it’s worth).
In particular, the second disc of Common As Light is an excruciating listen, like Metal Machine Music if the white noise was replaced by some guy droning on and on about gun control. I’m sure Kozelek is affected deeply by the massacres at Orlando’s Pulse night club and the terror attacks at Bataclan and Nice, but unlike with “Pray For Newtown,” the lighter tone of the music and discursive references to Rush have the effect of trivializing, to say nothing of the fact that his ideas for retribution are no more complex than those of Toby Keith.
And there’s a difference between Kozelek being off-the-cuff funny and telling jokes. “Philadelphia Cop” is the third song here, and it’s definitely the point where listeners are gonna decide if they’re in or out. Perhaps you’ve heard this is the one where the track stops cold for a skit where Kozelek mock-interviews a music journalist and…it’s fucking hilarious. I mean, the guy was in Almost Famous, so he’s got some acting chops and he absolutely nails the blasé acknowledgment of privilege (“Yeah, totally — I’m friends with Jim James, Dr. John Misty [sic], a bunch of people…hold on a sec, Sufjan Stevens is texting me”) and minor hassles (“Yeah, I mean, wearing [a laminate] makes me feel a little self-conscious”) that come with our territory. But then you have “Vague Rock Song” and “Seventies TV Show Theme Song”; I remember streaming Benji on Sun Kil Moon’s lovely website and being utterly transfixed, appreciating the lack of any timer or clock. Now it has the opposite effect here where you’re lord-only-knows how long through him trying to switch hotel rooms because of elevator noise and it seems like this shit is never going to end.
When it does work, Common As Light is so outlandish on a superficial level that it’s automatically his most interesting album since Benji. These songs move in a way that the Jesu split never did. In an interview with Conor Oberst that coincided with the stream, Kozelek mentions that the last rap record he listened to was To Pimp A Butterfly because a session player said his own music reminded him of Kendrick Lamar — a statement that seems absurd until I remembered that Benji’s ability to weave a full-album, libretto-demanding narrative reminded me of Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City.
Kozelek claimed that this his Among The Leaves about-face was a result of running out of metaphors, and at points, Common As Light can make the process of poetic licensure seem futile and inadequate compared to just going off the dome. Maybe in 2003, “Butch Lullaby” could’ve been a gorgeous, heartbreaking elegy to a roadie who served as a semi-famous fixture on Haight Street. But then Kozelek wouldn’t have found a way to mention that Butch made an appearance in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Funky Monks” video and was in the recording sessions for Old Ramon, facts that serve as evocative ways to underline his entrenchment in the local scene after he “turned up with George Clinton’s entourage 20 years ago or so…and he just never left.”
And like…I dunno, @dril or @PFTCommenter or something, all of this stream-of-consciousness stuff has a way of unintentionally seeming profound if you zoom out far enough. Take “Highway Song,” for example. There are stretches of tedium that sound like what Kozelek’s cover of Modest Mouse’s “Trucker’s Atlas” would’ve been if he was just reading from a trucker’s atlas. There’s an aside over Sergio Leone guitar where we learn about his fascination with Wild West vigilante justice and, later, a story about the death of “Dad Rock Slowhand Simpleton,” an Eric Clapton impersonator. Kozelek recites a list of what was found in the murderer’s cabin, and I just want to type out “all CDs were still in the shrinkwrap, unopened — except for Hot Hot Heat” to confirm that is an actual lyric. Otherwise, authorities find a flip phone (like the one Kozelek has???) filled with pictures of cats (!), phonebooths (!!), a VHS tape of boxing bloopers (!!!!!!!!) clothes from Under Armour (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)…and oh, the murderer acted because he felt Slowhand’s voice was too reminiscent of “the guy who sang ‘Wonderful Tonight,'” which cut too deep because it was the song of his 7th-grade sweetheart, who dumped him for a rich kid with a pontoon — a lyric extremely similar to one from Benji’s “Dogs.” Oh, and we all know how Kozelek feels about yacht rock, “or, in other circles — dad rock” (or, in other circles, beer commercial rock). Oh, and the only result when you Google “Slowhand Simpleton” is…a Genius page for “Highway Song.”
Look, I don’t think Kozelek is on some next-level shit, playing some kind of 4D chess and always two moves ahead. I don’t come out of Common As Light thinking he’s a blubbering, hateful idiot trying to hang on to whatever receding relevancy he has left. I’ll stop right here and just acknowledge that for music writers, Godwin’s Law will probably be renamed after Donald Trump by the end of the month and I am not likening Kozelek to 45, even though it’s so easy to go there and he unintentionally mirrors a certain Donald Trump quote during “Philadelphia Cop”: “I ain’t nobody’s fucking puppet.” In fact, during “Lone Star,” Kozelek actually predicts the Trump presidency and says we’ve not only earned it, but asked for it.
But in the midst of chastising Americans driven solely by technologically distributed instant gratification, I just can’t believe that an album like this could be made by someone who isn’t under the same bondage. When Kozelek boasts of being nobody’s fucking puppet, he’s referring to a career that has led to a position of almost total autonomy likely unmatched for artists at his level — he runs his own label, is able to tour solo, rarely needs an opening act, and clearly doesn’t abide by the prevailing assumption that the music press and musicians are in a symbiotic relationship. It’s just impossible to think a method of instantaneous, mass-scale publishing wouldn’t appeal to someone who has sung about his prostate issues and what he eats for lunch on any given day. And maybe, just maybe, this is Kozelek’s Scared Straight!, a work of reverse psychology to get us all to heed his advice and get off our iPhones. After all, spending enough time with Common As Light has the same effect of staring at Twitter — do it for 30 minutes and the possibilities of human communication and connection seem unlimited. Do it for 130 and it’ll make you fucking insane.
Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood is out now on Caldo Verde.