The latest album from Mark Kozelek under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood, which was released earlier this year, not only saw the singer-songwriter take his usual style of verbose, stream-of-consciousness lyricism to a new extreme, with the record consisting of over two hours of nearly uninterrupted monologues, but it also saw the introduction of a much more stylistically varied approach to the equally drawn-out instrumentals that accompany Kozelek’s harangues. Pulling from genres as diverse as electronica, post-rock and hip hop, Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood employed the compositional approach of Sun Kil Moon’s previous release, 2015’s Universal Themes, and pushed it past the tropes common of indie, folk and rock music, whilst still employing the downbeat melodies, sluggish tempos and minimalist arrangements of Kozelek’s attitude towards such genres. As I acknowledged in my review of the album, a likely catalyst for this change of pace was Kozelek’s collaboration with British experimental outfit Jesu, founded by Justin Broadrick of the legendary industrial metal band Godflesh following the band’s breakup, last year on the album Jesu / Sun Kil Moon. Many of the instrumentals across Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood displayed hints of influences from similar styles of post-metal, electronica and stoner rock to those which were featured on the collaborative effort from the two artists, whilst moulding them more towards Kozelek’s laid-back attitude towards lyric-writing and singing, which is one area in which I personally felt that Jesu / Sun Kil Moon was lacking. Nonetheless, Jesu and Sun Kil Moon have teamed up once again on an all-new album, 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth, which improves on the pair’s previous collaboration in several ways, making use of more diverse, textured and generally interesting instrumentals that play to the strengths of Kozelek’s vocal style far more effectively.
Indeed, whilst much of the material across Jesu / Sun Kil Moon was comprised of the atmospheric but brittle and heavy guitars associated with Jesu’s brand of shoegazing and post-metal, the duo makes use of a much more varied and textured sonic palette on 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth, with Broadrick providing instrumentals that are often just as interesting as Kozelek’s ramblings without diverting attention away from his stories. Such a diversified stylistic approach on this new collaboration between Jesu and Sun Kil Moon was hinted towards when the two acts came together to contribute a track to 30 Days, 30 Songs, a musical project that sought to compile anti-Donald Trump songs from various artists and release one a day for the 30 days leading up to last year’s presidential election. Jesu / Sun Kil Moon’s input came in the form of The Greatest Conversation Ever In The History Of The Universe; a dreamy synthpop tune that sees Kozelek employ his usual, slow-paced, story-based lyricism against cascades of glistening synth melodies and glitchy, electronic beats that are nevertheless rather lethargic, as to play to Sun Kil Moon’s meditative slowcore aesthetic. Within the context of 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth, The Greatest Conversation Ever In The History Of The Universe, being the fourth song in the tracklisting, offers a refreshing, upbeat respite towards the middle of the record when compared to the downtrodden experimental rock cuts surrounding it, especially when considering that the first three tracks on the record follow a similar post-rock blueprint.
Indeed, this first trio of songs could certainly be more varied in the execution of their instrumentals, but that’s not to say that each track doesn’t utilise a handful of interesting ideas that distinguish them from the others. The opening song, You Are Me And I Am You, for instance, stands out as being particularly well-textured, with detailed layers of electronic rhythms and synthesized melodies building throughout the track’s five-minute duration, coming together to craft some subtle but luscious soundscapes. The backend of the cut sees the introduction of some melancholic nylon-string guitar work and harmonised, mocking vocals from Kozelek, creating a compelling juxtaposition of electronic and organic sounds across the song’s runtime. In contrast, the distant, bubbling synths, hushed, reverbed guitars and steady, mechanical beat of Wheat Bread retains a slight ambient techno vibe, which continues onto the airy soundscapes of Needles Disney. Such a subtle but intricate approach to songwriting plays perfectly to the strengths of Kozelek’s long-winded vocal style, and the main success of Broadrick’s instrumentals on 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth compared to Jesu / Sun Kil Moon is the extent to which his arrangements complement his collaborator. Whether it be the chilled desert rock hue to Bombs, the breezy folktronica of He’s Bad or the simple finger-picked melodies of Twenty Something and A Dream Of Winter, Broadrick consistently accommodates Kozelek’s sung spiels with his instrumentals, in that, even when spanning across numerous genres, the musician manages to capture the breezy, unhurried nature of Kozelek’s performances in some equally easygoing, but no less intriguing, arrangements.
As for Kozelek’s lyrical contributions to 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth, the attitude utilised by the singer remains relatively unchanged compared to his previous two studio albums under the Sun Kil Moon alias, allowing himself the freedom to simply recount stories and events of his life, whilst occasionally making some sort of profound statement on Western culture or politics. Certain songs pick up where some previous Sun Kil Moon song may have left off, with You Are Me And I Am You being an ode to Kozelek’s father, much in the same vein as I Love My Dad from his 2014 album, Benji. Whereas I Love My Dad was largely focussed on the impact of Kozelek’s father on the musician as a child, however, You Are Me And I Am You sees the singer reflecting on his father’s lifework, artistry and ageing. Specifically, Kozelek takes the time to observe his father’s paintings and ruminate over the implications hidden in his work that he may have previously overlooked, such as the recurrence of things being in groups of four, with the singer considering, “Are those four ducks your children drifting away?”. Later in the track, Kozelek recalls small but significant events, particularly a specific phone call, that remind him of his likeness to his father, the pride he takes in him and the looming thought that, in going on 83, his dad is approaching the end of his life, all of which evokes a similar fear of losing a loved one as that which the artist conveyed on the song I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love, also from Benji. Other cuts feature stories that stand out as being rather unique in Sun Kil Moon’s back-catalogue, such as Kozelek’s reminiscence of a trip to Disney World with a former girlfriend who happened to be a drug-addict on Needles Disney. In a rather moving fashion, Kozelek uses this story as a means of giving a platform to the feelings of drug-users that are often neglected as a result of people’s tendency to hastily pass judgment on addicts, with the singer recalling his ex-girlfriend’s most plainly human emotions, whether it be her love of 10cc’s I’m Not In Love or her ecstatic, childish excitement at the prospect of going to Disney World. The entire premise of the song could be summed up by the line, “Mind your own goddamn business, fuck you, junkies are allowed to enjoy Disney World too”, which is also an amusingly accurate summary of Kozelek’s cantankerous but charming character.
The other side to Kozelek’s diatribes is, of course, the shots he fires at various aspects of culture and politics and, given the title of the album being 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth, it seems as if the artist is keen on portraying the state of American politics as his primary concern across this release. This being said, Kozelek’s comments on politics are typically rather limited and surface-level throughout the tracklisting, with even The Greatest Conversation Ever In The History Of The Universe, a song used for an anti-Trump campaign, only barely touching on the election. Although I appreciate the singer’s witty remark that “if you think you took no part in [Trump’s] place in this world, then you’re fired”, his vilification of the new President, and the obsession with technology that Kozelek claims to have created a state of apathy that led to Trump being elected, is rather cursory and superficial in comparison. Indeed, Kozelek’s more cogent criticisms are aimed at certain sectors of society and aspects of culture, particularly those relating to music, music fans and music journalism, which was a prevalent topic on much of Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood. The most effective and amusing showcase of this is on Wheat Bread, as the singer recalls playing at indie arts festival South by Southwest and being constantly asked the same questions by fans ad nauseam: “Hey Mark, when’s Universal Themes coming out on vinyl?”, “Hey Mark, when are you gonna play South Carolina?”, “Hey Mark, are you gonna play anything from Benji?”, etc. As Kozelek rattles off all of these obnoxious questions constantly directed at him, the mix is swamped by a swarm of vocal tracks of the singer incessantly chirping, “Hey Mark!” in an almost parrot-like fashion, which portrays the annoyance Kozelek feels at having to constantly talk about himself in a hilariously direct manner. The light-hearted and compassionate side of Kozelek emerges in his response to these questions, that being a simple “fuck you”, but “not a harsh type of ‘fuck you’, just a light little ‘I-don’t-wanna-talk-about-me-please-tell-me-a-little-about-you fuck you'”. There’s seldom any shortage of humour or engaging storytelling to be found on a Sun Kil Moon project, and although 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth doesn’t see Kozelek completely commit himself to the political inclination of the album implied in its title and hinted at across much of its subject matter, this record is ultimately no exception to the musician’s long-running reputation of chatty, caustic, comical lectures on anything and everything.
Compared to the previous collaboration between Jesu and Sun Kil Moon, 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth improves on practically all fronts, with Broadrick’s altered and diversified compositional approach both complementing Kozelek’s ramblings far more effectively, whilst also overcoming the issue of one-dimensionality that became apparent across Jesu / Sun Kil Moon. In retaining the minimalist arrangements and subtle song progressions associated with both of the artists’ material, Kozelek is given room to rant to his heart’s content, whilst the instrumentals provide beautiful and tense textures that reinforce the singer’s weighty lyricism with soundscapes that are just as engrossing, without detracting from Kozelek’s stories. On the topic of Kozelek’s lyrics, it is most definitely his life stories and the wisdom he extracts from them that provide for the most gripping and generally captivating moments across the record, with his sociopolitical commentary not always being at its most profound, despite his usual flashes of wit and sardonicism. All things considered, however, 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth sees the musical philosophies of two complementary artists come together in a way that plays to the strengths of each of their songwriting styles, and given the improvement exhibited between Jesu / Sun Kil Moon and this new record, it’s likely that the more time the two musicians spend working together, the more each one’s artistry will grow to effectively accompany the other’s.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10