Common As Light and Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood is not a casual album. It’s not the kind of thing you can put on in the background while you are studying and reading a book, and it’s also not the kind of album where you can ignore the lyrics and take in the music. For all of Common As Light’s two hour length, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek bridges the gap between music and audiobook with sixteen tracks of post-rock tinged experimental folk. Sun Kil Moon’s latest project requires your total focus – drift in and out for just a moment and you’ll be lost.
In essence, Common As Light is a collection of Kozelek’s anecdotes put to music, an unfiltered stream of consciousness set to intricate guitar work and slow sludgy drums. What begins as a simple loop quickly evolves into much more as Kozelek’s vocals fill the free space, always shifting between melodic spoken word, melancholy choruses, or sometimes even picking up the pace for a sort of pseudo-rapped / jazz poetry style of thing. Instrumentation and lyrics are inseparable on this project – either by themselves would be too empty, but together they form a satisfying final product.
Seemingly simple ideas easily grow into ten minute pieces that are engaging from start to finish – on tracks like God Bless Ohio, Kozelek begins with one delicate folk melody, but as the song progresses he switches it out for new musical motifs and reiterating those prior. What results is a beautiful sense of resolution, with musicality matching vocals in tempo and emotion. Sun Kil Moon is a master at this. Never does a track feel as though Kozelek has lumped some of his unconscious poetry atop some prerecorded instrumentation – they are so finely intertwined that every instrument or vocal knows when and how to take center stage without interrupting one another.
Common As Light changes emotion as much as it does music. Effortlessly, Sun Kil Moon move from moody post-rock inspired tracks like Window Sash Weights to heavy western tinged pieces like The Highway Song before moving onwards to the upbeat I Love Portugal. It’s eclectic, but never messy, never gimmicky unless carefully planned by Kozelek’s sense of self-awareness and intentional self-parody throughout songs like Philadelphia Cop or Seventies TV Show Theme Song. Kozelek is easily as adept at encapsulating the dreary melancholia of Midwestern suburbia on these dreamy, snowy folk tracks as he is at delivering rants expressing his discontent with the social status quo.
Although at first seemingly menial and uninteresting anecdotes from his life, Kozelek’s gift for storytelling somehow turns these streams of consciousness into engaging and enlightening stories. Whether a narrative that Kozelek has completely invented or a reminscence he’s plucked from his youth, there are episodes from all over this album that a wide range of listeners will find relatable and hit close to home. In Common As Light’s subtler moments, Kozelek reflects on relationships and mortality, but always with a perspective of knowingness and acceptance of what is to come. There’s a certain realness about this album – Kozelek is a sort of heroic everyman, encapsulating a sense of averageness and mild discontent both in music and storytelling reflective of the realities of a stale modern society.
Kozelek’s rememberances are more than simple storytelling too. Often, these streams of consciouness are didactic tales of moral value, forcing listeners to think beyond the music and consider their place in the real world. Sun Kil Moon recontextualises the traditional political aspects of folk music, and gives it a modern social conscience – on Philadelphia Cop, Kozelek puts down feminist detractors (“If you’re a man in charge, cling with staunch feminists and give a woman your job or shut the fuck up”), while throughout the entirety of the album he makes clear his strong stances for pro-gun control and anti-violence on tracks like Bastille Day.
One of Common As Light’s highlights is the powerful and zealous Bergen to Trondheim, a grinding bass heavy track that sees Kozelek go on a furious tirade about violence, atrocities, and the state of the modern world, reflecting on the Orlando massacre and the Istanbul attack at a Radiohead release party (“I can’t say I ever liked Radiohead too much myself / But that doesn’t mean I’d walk into a room with a crowbar and try to beat their fans to death”). But even so, a sense of hopefulness permeates this track and others – as Kozelek echoes Muhammad Ali’s “me, we” poem, the music glides forward, escalating beautifully.
Common As Light has no shortage of poetic moments, possessing a perfect grasp of dramatic and musical tension. The Highway Song ends with Kozelek delivering some sort of eulogy for a surreal saga between two faux musicians (“The objects used to kill his victim were a ’59 reissued Les Paul guitar made by Epiphone and an antique ice pick bought at an Alameda flea market.”), while on the ethereal and dreamy Window Sash Weights, Kozelek searches for the ghost of mysterious murder victim Elisa Lam (“Gonna stay at the Cecil hotel for a night, where an alleged girl, allegedly named Elisa Lam, allegedly stayed / It’s been on my mind since I think the story of her death was possibly staged”). At the end of the eclectic seventies homage track Seventies TV Show Theme Song, Kozelek delivers one of the album’s most humdrum yet beautiful and serene moments of solitude – a simple memory of towing in a boat on a fishing line. It doesn’t matter if these stories are real or not – little is as wonderfully dreamlike and surreal as this.
Sun Kil Moon’s latest effort is an astonishing work. A seamless blend of experimental folk, post rock, and spoken word, Mark Kozelek has created what is easily one of the best works in this style of music, and one of the strongest releases of 2017 so far. It’s lethargic, engaging, misty, and socially conscious all at once – two hours of moody and melancholic reflections on life and the modern world.