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‘Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood’: Some Thoughts from a Mark Kozelek Fan

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Excluding Jesu/Sun Kil Moon (2016), Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood is Sun Kil Moon’s eighth studio album. When it comes to singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek’s extraordinarily prolific output, much of the recent critical discourse has been unfortunately truncated. Many reviews discuss this musician’s career as if it began in 2014 with the popularly lauded Sun Kil Moon record Benji. As a long-time fan and grossly inexperienced music critic, I intend in my own way to discuss this sprawling, ambitious and ferocious new record within the context of his whole oeuvre. Indeed, when reviewing a recent Kozelek record, it’s difficult to avoid my impulse for personal and anecdotal disclosure. When I was in my late teens, a friend gave me a copy of Down Colorful Hill, the 1992 debut record by Kozelek’s first band, Red House Painters. I was immediately taken by the album’s distinct atmosphere; I was struck first by Kozelek’s pained and gorgeously sung lyrics, but also by the record’s uniquely sparse and meticulous arrangement. A few years later, I was emotionally and mentally broken down by my first serious break-up; 20 years old and perpetually depressed, I found incredible solace in Kozelek’s music. I listened to the Red House Painters catalogue literally hundreds of times, with a preference for their 4AD output (I have since come to equally love Songs for a Blue Guitar [1996] and Old Ramon [2001]). Sun Kil Moon and Kozelek’s explicitly solo-labelled records came later. In particular, Admiral Fell Promises (2010) was on steady rotation during my angst-ridden early-20s. Kozelek’s musical and lyrical development has always been striking and challenging: even in its earliest stages, Red House Painter’s evolution is noteworthy, from the oppressive tones of Down Colorful Hill to the eclectic and almost pop-inflected Ocean Beach. By the time the band veers into the mature folk-inspired sound of Old Ramon, Kozelek’s multifaceted talent is clear.

With the release of Among the Leaves in 2012, I was mostly on board with Kozelek’s newly developing song-writing style. Gone was the armature of metaphor and ambiguity, replaced by a powerfully literal documentation of his experiences. By the time Benji came around, though, I caved under some of the ugliest impulses of fan psychology; I was outraged that his back catalogue had been erased by readers of Pitchfork’s laudatory review, and that many of his newfound fans were unfamiliar with his long-standing history. This music had meant so much to me for so long; what right did others have to jump on the bandwagon, simply by virtue of Pitchfork’s cue? In short, I had developed the kind of grouchy and self-righteous sense of “ownership” that Kozelek lambasts in “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” (Universal Themes [2015]). When friends innocently asked me whether or not I had heard Benji, I responded often with petulance: “It’s not very good,” I’d say. “Have you ever listened to Red House Painters, or the earlier Sun Kil Moon albums?” I was a furious hipster cliché.

Three years later, I’ve either calmed down or grown up, or maybe both. I now recognize Benji as the gorgeously intimate and unique masterpiece that it is, and I’ve also come to adore its inventive follow-up, Universal Themes. Listening now to Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood, it dawns on me more than ever that when we discuss Kozelek, we are discussing a singular and genuinely special artistic voice. Yet again, the 50-year-old musician surprises with his perpetual self-reinvention; following his rough and shaggy collaboration with Justin Broadrick on Jesu/Sun Kil Moon, he finds new methods of confrontation and novelty. He has come to totally inhabit his recent lyrical style, which combines frank and literal recollection with the brazen, unapologetic outpouring of his personal opinions. This is a vast, uncomfortable and wildly sporadic record, which draws musical influences from sources as diverse as Kendrick Lamar, Claude Debussy and Pink Floyd. Any frame of reference, though, consistently melts into the background; Kozelek is present, combative and always original. He forces you to listen to his music on its own terms.

Knee-jerk reactions don’t suit this artist well. As a point of comparison, consider the fact that Bob Dylan was disowned by critics repeatedly throughout his career, most famously for the electric evolution of Highway 61 Revisited (1965), but also for the overt religiosity of his gospel records (Slow Train Coming [1979], Saved [1980] and Shot of Love [1981]). The same might be said for David Bowie (remembered fondly by Kozelek on Common as Light), whose persona also developed radically and consistently throughout his half-century of output. For his total commitment to personal expression and continual reinvention, Kozelek ranks with these artists. For his blunt public persona and recent stream of diss tracks (I’m looking at you “War on Drugs Suck My Cock” and “The Ottawa Blues Fest is Run by Inbreds”), he has been compared to the likes of Kanye West and even Eminem.

And yes, he’s definitely vicious — Common as Light attacks millennials, Internet culture, journalists and transphobic rednecks with sustained mercilessness. Worth noting, though, is that this record does not exist in a vacuum, but is a part of a long and always-developing body of work. When Kozelek reflects openly on his own mortality during the chillingly sparse outro of “Chili Lemon Peanuts,” the words develop new weight and meaning through their connection to “24,” the songwriter’s early fixation on death that opened Down Colorful Hill. Common as Light, spanning two discs and 16 long tracks, contains far too much musical complexity and lyrical breadth to be processed in a handful of listens. I seek not to “capture” the album in one listen, but to identify it as a part of a consistently important catalogue. What Kozelek is developing more intently with each consecutive album is distinctly his own: a diary of one man’s messy, particular and conflicted experiences. Listening through the Painters records, the Sun Kil Moon catalogue and Kozelek’s various other monikers (both solo, and his collaborations with Jimmy LaValle, Desertshore and Jesu), one can chart an impression of a life. That it’s often uncomfortable and brutal and full of contradictions is totally fitting. It may not always sit easily, but at least it’s true. For that reason alone, Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood is a special album. I’ll be revisiting it routinely for a long time; I can’t possibly be expected to “qualify” it yet, but it’s definitely great. Just how great? Ask me again in a few years.

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is a lifelong cinema enthusiast pursuing his M.A. in English literature at the University of Calgary. His fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including DarkFuse, Double Feature Magazine, Turn to Ash and the anthology Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups). He has also written numerous articles for Bright Lights Film Journal. You can contact him through his website, mikethornwrites.com.

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