Mark Kozelek doesn’t like what I do. This was made abundantly clear somewhere between Universal Themes’ “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” and Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood’s “Philadelphia Cop,” in which the song breaks for a strange skit between a “music journalist” and an outdated impression of a teenage girl (both voiced by Kozelek). It’s true; things have gotten pretty weird between Kozelek and in followers since the release of his recent opus, 2014’s Benji. He’s publicly lashed out against music journalists, other artists, and an entire North Carolina audience. Truth be told, he couldn’t give a shit whether or not I “recommend” his new album or not. So why do I continue to be so drawn to it?
Sun Kil Moon’s new direction has been described as “stream of consciousness,” “spoken word” and, perhaps most interestingly, “hyper-realistic.” For better or for worse, Common as Light and Love cements that direction tenfold. It is a double album that clocks in at two hours and 10 minutes, over twice the length of Benji. In short, it’s a lot to digest at once. But where Benji was simply beautiful, Common as Light and Love is strange and flawed and beautiful all at once, sometimes all within the span of one (eight-minute) song.
If songs are often to albums what chapters are to books, each track here is its own essay, a blank bass and drum template for Kozelek to meditate on any topic he so chooses, and he decidedly has more to say here than he did on Universal Themes. Splitting the difference between the inward and outward reflection of the past two Sun Kil Moon albums, Kozelek focuses primarily on turning 50 and his (often well-intentioned if outdated) political views, from gun violence to Trump’s presidency and the rights of the transgender community. Occasionally, he breaks into spoken word tangents about boxing or true crime, or reads a letter from a fan in its entirety. In a way, and at the risk of sounding incredibly pretentious, this is art in its rawest form – unfiltered and unrefined. There is no cherry picking to be had amongst the songs; Kozelek lends himself entirely to the music, holding nothing back (again, for better or for worse). I can shake my head until it comes loose every time Kozelek goes on a petty tangent about millennials or social media, but minutes later, I’ll be captivated by his commentary on mass violence and the way he transforms a poem by the late Muhammad Ali. This is something that I find inherently interesting and something that, admittedly, plenty of others don’t.
But there are moments of what people loved about Kozelek’s back catalog here – flashes of Spanish and classical guitar, descriptions of what love is and means, and character profiles to boot. Sonically, “Butch Lullabye” may sound much more aggressive and chunky than “Micheline,” but Kozelek brings the same amount of grace and delicacy when detailing the life of the song’s titular character. “When someone is older than you, always take the time to listen to them. A person older than you knows something that you don’t. At the very least, Butch knew what it meant to be black and born in 1952. Do you? Because I don’t know shit about that,” he remarks unironically during one of the song’s spoken word breaks. “Butch Lullabye” is lyrically the most beautiful song on the album and I would argue a highlight of Sun Kil Moon’s post-Benji career.
There are other moments of lyrical beauty, specifically during opener “God Bless Ohio,” when Kozelek recounts “The beautiful children of my sister/And the blue herons gliding across the pond” amid a collection of Ohio’s most beautiful (and bleakest) attributes. Not long after, he’s harmonizing with himself whilst singing about Salisbury steak. It’s like he’s constantly two steps away from genius and/or stupidity, purely dependent upon who’s listening. I’m not sure even Kozelek knows the difference, and again, I don’t think he cares.
Musically, Common as Light and Love sounds primarily influenced by Sun Kil Moon’s recent album with Jesu, thumping with enough electronic bass that some have even noted a hip-hop influence throughout the album. Kozelek experiments with synth to mixed results, with the sound of some songs juxtaposed against their lyrical content (“Bastille Day”). “I Love Portugal” is the prettiest sounding song on the album, one of the few that features Kozelek actually singing and inserting silly lines like, “I’m gonna go back next year and I’m gonna find that same shoe store!” during the song’s outro. The album could end here, as Kozelek admits to himself on “Seventies TV Show Theme Song” that the song is filler (as are the very bizarre “Vague Rock Song” and “Bastille Day”), but it doesn’t, and that’s okay too. “I Love You Forever and Beyond Eternity” closes the album on a high note, whether you’ve ambitiously decided to listen in full or go back and listen in pieces.
I can’t speak to the lasting value of this album, or any album for that matter. There’s a part of me that completely understands listeners brushing this off due to size and scope alone, but to be honest, that same part of me wouldn’t have trouble believing that this became some sort of career standout in a decade or two. Mark Kozelek is a prolific artist. He has plans to release another album with Jesu this year, and with that release, he’ll have doubled the number of albums in Sun Kil Moon’s discography since 2014. To claim that each of those releases meet the same standard of quality would be bogus, especially considering just how thick of a double-album this is, but regardless of general spottiness, Kozelek is still capable of creating moments of true beauty and unique insight. If that sounds like enough, Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood might just be an album for you.