Sun Kil Moon - Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood
Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short fiction cycle Winesburg, Ohio paints an intricate portrait of small town culture and values via the stories of an interconnected community. The tragedies of each Winesburgian are often quaint, though the relationships between its townspeople are complex and deeply rooted in the place’s history. Reading it, you vacillate between the mundane details of the protagonists’ individual lives and their harsh, existential internalizations (See also: August Osage County). No wonder Mark Kozelek’s Benji, released under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, so frequently drew comparisons to the book. Similarly, Benji built from seeming trivialities to capture themes of life, death, and aging. This was only compounded by a songwriting style that took an almost journalistic quality, Mark drawing upon day-to-day events, even (and especially) the mundane: “I woke up this morning, August 3rd / It’s been a pretty slow and uneventful summer”. In the following years, Kozelek would double down on this approach – first on Universal Themes, then on Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, and now on Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood. By focusing increasingly upon minutiae to a nearly impenetrable extent, his newest album takes on a form entirely of it’s own. It’s as if Sherwood Anderson decided to publish the daily diary entries of one of his troubled characters, and fuck you, it’s twice as long as the original collection.
While the album opens with palette cleanser, and aptly titled, “God Bless Ohio”, Common as Light’s next song serves as the album’s teaser of it’s structure and aims. Here is what Mark covers on “Chili Lemon Peanuts”: A drive through apple orchards, objects on the front porch, boxing, the smell of a sardine can, a bible verse passage (read in full and apparently chosen at random), an episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Peter Dinklage, fans of his former band (Red House Painters), terrorist attacks, dream sequences, love for his wife, life, death, back to boxing, and the “hum of a small refrigerator”. The lyrics occupy this zone between stream-of-consciousness and then I did this and then I saw this, and thoughtfully thematic wrapping. It often takes a few listens to digest what Mark may have been getting at all along. What saves this lyrical style from being too challenging of a listen is also what makes Kozelek’s third wind of his career so unique: the complexity, abstraction, or mundanity of each song is strung together by coherent musical passages that exactly fit whatever moment Kozelek is exploring at the time. For example, on “Lone Star”, Mark pulls away from the narrative at hand (pain and victimhood) to sing about some cats he happens to observe, “Cats are so cute in their tucked away spaces / they’re so cute I want to eat their faces”. With this complete lyrical shift comes a beautifully hypnotic acoustic guitar passage that Mark observes sounds like a “Jimmy Page inspired Cameron Crowe film”. It’s uniquely cinematic, though it doesn’t sound like the soundtrack to a film, but the screenplay, liner notes and director’s commentary, Mark focusing his lens on a moment of poetry and then twisting the camera toward himself to discuss his inspirations.
Elsewhere, Mark covers topics ranging from transgender bathroom laws in North Carolina, boxing (a lot), Donald Trump (“This dumb motherfucker will be on the news every day and we asked for it”), and, again, death and aging. While the album itself doesn’t seem to carry an overall theme beyond – this is what it’s like for Mark to be 49 in 2017 – a few recurring motifs do emerge. Most prevalently, Mark devotes a great deal of the album to current events and true crime. “Stranger Than Paradise” chronicles a trip to the Cecil Hotel where Elisa Lam’s “alleged” corpse was “allegedly” found, and “Highway Song” makes mention of several serial killers before Mark invents a fictionalized serial killer based off of, well, himself. There are even several moments where Mark seems to unknowingly slip out of the current thread to peddle theories on these murders, before ultimately reminding himself to go back to the song’s intended theme, “Go back to the other part now / go back to the other part now”.
At no point do these moments seem intended to convey an underlying message as much as they build upon Mark’s performance of self. Given the juxtaposition of detailing daily events with a focus on sentimentalism and death, it becomes clear that his music has become a means of clasping onto fleeting moments, raising them up, and crystallizing them.
However, Mark’s openness is not necessarily endearing. He frequently rags on iPhone addicted millennial culture (a pretty easy target for a baby boomer with a flip phone), and at one point completely snaps out of a song mid-verse to deliver a sketch between a music journalist and an idolizing hipster on standout “Philadelphia Cop”. The skewering of these two archetypes is kinda mean, kinda on the nose, and wholly memorable. It’s a moment that jumps out of the album to remind you that Kozelek’s form of vulnerability isn’t one in which he softly exposes his sensitivities and positions, but rather, brandishes them. For those who react to this over two-hour-long album with a who cares? I get it. And for those who react to this album with a Mark Kozelek is an asshole. I get that too. Kozelek occupies a unique space for his fans, used-to-be fans, and music critics – those forced to negotiate their relationship with his deeply sentimental past work, his polarizing recent incarnation, and now, his personality.
If you simply enter “Mark Kozelek” into a search engine, you will find no shortage of reviews, thinkpieces, or blog posts covering Mark’s behavior in the time since Benji became critically successful. Most prevalently, Mark’s stage banter at several of his shows has spiraled into a bizarre odyssey: He overheard a War On Drugs set from a neighboring venue and joked that his next song was called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock”; he later recorded an actual song with that namesake and included a verse about a time he told his raucous audience, “All you rednecks, shut the fuck up”; he then made and sold a T-shirt with that quotation; he dedicated a song on Universal Themes to a journalist who gave one of his shows a bad review; and told an audience that a Pitchfork writer who had been trying to interview him “wants to fuck me”.
It’s difficult to tell if Mark, who had certainly garnered a cult following since Red House Painters but not much wider exposure, was using his newfound relevance to a younger generation to subvert internet hype culture, or if he’s simply an asshole. Most likely, it’s a bit of both. The trollish songs and T-shirts paired with these moments suggest Mark is morphing the narrative into a spectacle he controls. But given Laura Snapes’ write-up, it’s clear that Mark’s disregard for how his jokes are perceived creates a tension with modern rhetoric. This album and the general reaction to it remind me a great deal of the two recently released Dave Chappelle (another Ohian) specials. In moments, sobering, philosophic, and refreshingly confrontational, but also a bit out of step with the times. You get the sense that both artists are intentionally poking at these topics to elicit a reaction – but that doesn’t mean we haven’t already found ways to less carelessly navigate them.
Regardless of how this album is evaluated by an individual listener, it will ultimately lead to an assessment of Kozelek’s character, which Mark will proudly define for you: “A wily motherfucker from Masillion, Ohio and that’s what you get, sucker”. That’s what you get. It is certainly frustrating to know that someone who can act like an asshole also writes some of the most sentimental lyrics you’ll hear all year, but you get the sense that you are truly being provided the full picture. The ornate and the brusque. The good and the bad. Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood.
The album is beautifully intricate, frustrating, tragic, and transcendent all at once, and like Winesburg, Ohio, nearly overwhelms with detail to invigorate the mundane. When you’re finished listening, and that is if you get there, something about how you process the rest of your day becomes altered. You may become more present in conversation. You may hold onto the ambient aspects of time you would otherwise forget. You may notice the poetry in your routine walk to work. And you may find some inner peace in regards to your own shortcomings. Today just became one worth appreciating. “And tomorrow’s gonna be another fantastic voyage”.