Mark Kozelek is one of the most unique songwriters of our time and I have held this opinion ever since I heard his 2014 release under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, Benji. What’s more, he’s also embraced a great change in his approach to both composing and writing lyrics since his days as the frontman of folk rock and slowcore powerhouse, Red House Painters. On the band’s most seminal songs, Kozelek established his approach to songwriting, involving long, drawn-out, heartbreakingly sad instrumentals that were very subtle in their progression. On top of these songs, Kozelek would deliver very emotionally-challenging lyrics in his haunting signature style of baritone singing. Indeed, Kozelek’s time as the primary songwriter for Red House Painters heralded in the eerily unique sound that he would come to hone further under the pseudonym of Sun Kil Moon. Under this moniker, Kozelek has become known for a similar style of composing, again making use of long, repetitious and simple instrumentals, but his attitude towards lyrics is far less conventional, with most songs in his recent discography following a stream-of-conscious approach, to the point of sounding improvised at times. Indeed, when listening to a Sun Kil Moon song, one can expect to hear hefty and difficult subject matters being tackled, but not without hearing what Mark had for breakfast, the exact time at which he met up with a friend, or the song he had stuck in his head on the day that his bandmate’s dad’s best friend’s daughter’s dog died. Such an overblown application of a stream-of-conscious approach to songwriting is almost comical in its specificity, but it has nonetheless earned Kozelek a reputation as an incredible writer of lyrics. The fact that he can sing about such mundane topics in such a casual manner, whilst maintaining his listener’s full attention and using typical, everyday, unremarkable events to reflect on much weightier topics is astonishing. Benji certainly saw this style of writing reach its peak, and the album remains, in my opinion, one of the best albums of the decade thus far. Universal Themes, Sun Kil Moon’s 2015 album and the follow-up to Benji, saw Kozelek double-down on the wordy lyric-writing, with the album’s 70-minute runtime being spread across just eight tracks, all of which featured Kozelek rambling on about anything and everything. The instrumental side of this album traded the largely solo acoustic approach of Benji and made more use of minimal backing instrumentation to accompany Kozelek’s long-winded chatter. On Sun Kil Moon’s latest studio album, Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood, most of its songs apply similar minimalist instrumental arrangements that remain largely unchanged throughout the tracks’ durations, as Kozelek takes his ramblings even further, to the point of even reading out entire letters from acquaintances verbatim on two occasions. The end product is his longest project yet, with the album’s 16 songs extending over 129 minutes. Musically-speaking, Kozelek makes use of a broader approach to composing on this record, in that a more varied array of styles are evoked and a slightly more diverse pool of instruments and sounds are used. As a result, this record feels like the natural predecessor to Universal Themes and Kozelek’s stubbornness and refusal to alter his attitude to songwriting in spite of those who he has criticised for expecting him to release more material just like Benji is tangible, with the singer addressing this more candidly than ever. Indeed, this is certainly Mark Kozelek’s most Mark Kozelek-y record to date and, for that reason, I admire it. Then again, speaking as a dear fan of the man’s music, I retain some reservations that leave this album not entirely living up to my expectations.
Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood opens up with the track teased when the album was announced, God Bless Ohio. This song is easily the most like Sun Kil Moon’s previous two albums here, both musically and lyrically, and the fact that this track was used to introduce the new record was perhaps a sign of picking up where Universal Themes left off. The solid bass and drum groove that accompanies Kozelek’s double-tracked classical guitar fingerpicking could have snuggly fit into the tracklisting of Sun Kil Moon’s previous album, and that’s not to say that God Bless Ohio feels like a leftover song, rather it feels just as strong as much of the material on Universal Themes and is one of the best songs on this new record. Lyrically too, this song evokes similar topics and performances to those which have appeared on Kozelek’s previous output as Sun Kil Moon, with the title itself clearly imitating Carry Me Ohio from the project’s debut album, Ghosts Of The Great Highway. What’s more, the topics covered during Kozelek’s 10-minute tangent touch on many matters that will be familiar to fans of Sun Kil Moon. For instance, the singer passingly mentions the Sexton family from his area (known for their abusive and incestuous father who would order his children to murder their fellow family members) as he did on Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes, and Mansfield prison, which he referenced on his ode to his father’s friend Jim Wise. The more general themes that relate to Kozelek’s family and the natural setting of his home state, as well as arbitrary things he associates with his childhood, like Domino’s pizza and his walks around familiar scenery, are also recurring narratives from across his career. As is becoming a staple across many of Kozelek’s lyrics, coming to terms with ageing is also dealt with on God Bless Ohio, and many other songs on this new record, in fact. Broadly speaking, God Bless Ohio is so successful because Kozelek’s fluid and somewhat disheveled blabbering is undeniably charming and strangely gripping to listen to, and the beautifully bittersweet instrumental backdrop provides the perfect setting in which Kozelek can recite his rants. Even after the song’s 10 minutes and 37 seconds have rolled past, the listener is left completely attentive and, if anything, wanting to hear more of an ordinary, ageing man’s stories of his stamping ground. Ultimately, the reason that Mark Kozelek’s music is so incredibly captivating much of the time is as a result of how down to earth his persona is. The listener can stay completely absorbed by his chit chat across a two-hour record because it’s like listening to a friend talk about their day in a café as some soft rock music gently plays from the speakers. Kozelek’s charm resides in his normality that leads so many people to feel an affinity with his music, and this sentiment is as present as ever on God Bless Ohio.
For the most part, the rest of Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood follows suit, but an interesting development is the fact that Kozelek touches on far more political issues than he ever has done in the past. Perhaps his contribution with Jesu to the anti-Trump record 30 Days, 30 Songs, with their song The Greatest Conversation Ever In This History Of The Universe, led the singer to comment on more issues of contemporary political debate. As one might expect from Kozelek, his approach to such issues in his lyrics touches mainly on broad talking-point politics and is conveyed with the burning anger of a drunk man at a local tavern forcing his viewpoint on any who will entertain his opinions. On some tracks, this approach works in the song’s favour, through similar means as to Kozelek’s usual lyrics. However, there are times when his remarks about topics of heated political discussion, like gun control, transgender bathroom laws and the attitude towards Syrian refugees, seem somewhat forced, which leads me to believe that maybe Kozelek only decided to cover such topics as a result of his association with the anti-Trump musical project. His best moments on the topic of political and social issues are often when he connects them to his own personal experiences or specific events in the news. For instance, it’s nothing new for the singer to mention celebrity deaths in his songs, as well as where he was when hearing the news of their deaths and what effect this had on him, so there are a few instances in which Kozelek touches on some of the many cultural icons to have passed away in 2016. His most interesting thoughts come from his reminiscence of the late Muhammad Ali, particularly the way in which he focusses on the boxer’s “shortest poem in all of the world’s history” on Bergen To Trondheim, when Ali was giving a talk at a college and a student requested that he come up with a poem, to which he replied, “Me / We”. Kozelek essentially adopts this as the MO for the progression of humanity towards a more peaceful and compassionate world, and the way in which he relates it to current events like the Orlando shooting and other acts of terrorism, as well as issues surrounding American gun laws, is very moving and provides for some of the most thoughtful and considerate lyrics on the record.
A notable outlier in the tracklisting is Vague Rock Song, which features a refrain that doesn’t conform to Kozelek’s usual attitude towards writing lyrics. The artist sings, “This is my vague rock song / Everybody sing along” to one of the most upbeat melodies on the record, or at least as close to upbeat as a Sun Kil Moon song can get. There is clearly a comical edge intended to this section of the song, and a later verse alludes to this being a prod at people who criticise Kozelek for his long-winded, wordy ramblings, with the first part of this cut being almost the complete antithesis of this, reciting generic lyrics like, “Come now, everybody dance” ad nauseam. The fact that the singer proclaims that he hopes it’s a song that we can hum and that “the words aren’t too many or too fast” seems to clearly be Kozelek’s way of taunting those who disregard his music because of his unconventional, stream-of-conscious approach. Of course, this doesn’t last long until some usual Sun Kil Moon verses are delivered, with the songwriter reflecting on a conversation he had with a female shop-worker as news of a chlorine attack in Syria flashed on the TV, learning that the woman was herself Syrian after seeing her give an ice-cream to a homeless man. I find it quite unlike Kozelek’s blunt self to respond to his critics through such satirical means, as he’s usually the kind to be very upfront and make some snide remarks about them whilst saying that he doesn’t care what they think and will continue to do whatever he wants. In this sense, Vague Rock Song is quite a peculiar listen, as it’s never fully-realised what the purpose of the song is, and it’s quite hard to tell whether it’s highly self-aware or completely lacking in self-awareness.
On the musical side of things, Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood is quite the mixed bag. The grooves provided by the rhythm section are a lot more rock-oritentated on many tracks, with there even being a fuzzy bass used at several points on the record. Whilst most people come to Sun Kil Moon primarily to hear Kozelek’s mindful and casual train of thought, the reason his best records, most notably Benji, were so successful was the fact that his musings were accompanied by heartbreakingly gorgeous folk-based compositions. However, on this new record, some of the rock instrumentals don’t quite complement Kozelek’s style of vocal delivery with the same success as seen by his previous material. Some of the repetitious arrangements come close to sounding like post-punk and, whilst there are certainly some musical highlights, there are a few occasions where the instrumental seems to almost clash with the vocal performance. For instance, the groovy, blues-inspired bass line on Bastille Day seems to be somewhat at odds with the subject matter of the Nice terrorist attack that took place on Bastille Day of last year. The song Butch Lullaby also features a slightly blues-tinged, meaty bass line that is slightly out of place on a track in memory of one of Kozelek’s dead friends. The solid beat perhaps reflects the singer’s recollections of how tough a guy Butch was, but it certainly doesn’t come across as a lullaby. Nevertheless, there are a handful of outstanding musical moments on this record too, with the absolutely ravishing chorus on Bergen To Trondheim coming to mind instantly. The beautifully bittersweet melody over the chorus as Kozelek delivers words of condolence to those who lost family members in the Orlando shooting is fitting and strangely uplifting, epitomising the sense of hope that resulted from the huge waves of support and sympathy for the LGBT community that came as a result of such a tragic event. The hushed and tranquil vibe on songs like Early June Blues and I Love Portugal give Kozelek the perfect platform to deliver his usual reminiscent and melancholic lyrics. This is particularly true for I Love Portugal, as he really captures the feeling of contentment he experienced over his time spent in Porto, as he lists what has made the country so special to him compared to all the other European nations he’s visited whilst touring. It’s songs like these that bring out the best in Kozelek’s formula as a songwriter, and they successfully convey why this approach makes him such an outstanding writer of lyrics and songs amongst contemporary folk acts.
Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood is certainly an admirable release for Sun Kil Moon, and it encapsulates many of the key songwriting tropes that have led to Mark Kozelek becoming one of the most unique and illustrious folk singer-songwriters of recent times. His stories and fluid remarks are as gripping as ever, and the album’s 129-minute runtime breezes by without feeling bloated or redundant. Many fans of Sun Kil Moon will perhaps be particularly interested in much of the subject matter on this record, as Kozelek expands on many a topic that he has touched upon previously, providing further insight into his worldview and expanding the recurring narratives of his recent releases. However, there are a selection of small qualities to this record that prevent me from absolutely loving it, namely some of the less imaginative instrumentals and an approach to political issues that isn’t as captivating as Kozelek’s usual style of writing lyrics. Whilst Mark’s talking points are always the outstanding feature of a Sun Kil Moon record, his most successful releases under this moniker boasted some fantastically beautiful and often haunting folk arrangements that brought out the best in his vocal delivery, and a handful of tracks on this record don’t complement Kozelek’s singing to the extent of his best material. Moreover, his approach to political issues, whilst I’m sure is as honest as the rest of his lyrics, comes across ever so slightly as virtue signalling, particularly because the singer has never covered so many issues to this extent on one project previously. It’s also a shame that these matters aren’t always addressed with the introspection that Kozelek has applied to political issues in the past, which has always played into his aesthetic perfectly. Overall, Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood is another strong release for Sun Kil Moon, but I nevertheless feel it falls slightly short of the high bar set by the project’s previous output.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10