In 2014, Sun Kil Moon released Benji, a highly sentimental record written in a stream of consciousness style that marked a hard break from indie hegemony. A fixture on AOTY lists that year, Benji was disarmingly un-ironic, with Mark Kozelek’s lyrics offering up a heartfelt documentary realism. After the demise of the 90’s slowcore group Red House Painters more than a decade before, Kozelek had embarked on the intimate solo project that sought to deal first and foremost with a lingering mid-life crisis, but also boxing, death, the onslaught of news events, and his upbringing in Ohio. The project seemed, at times, like a huge risk for Kozelek – an earnest attempt to put all the cards on the table and deal with the ins and outs of life without the conventions of ambiguous indie rock song-writing.
Benji felt like an outpouring of emotion, and Universal Themes, released the following year, felt like a move towards more narrative work. Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood takes yet another turn. The album feels like a series of attempts – experimental in a very strict sense of the word. Kozelek is probing towards something, some sort of feeling that he can’t quite hit. The failure is admirable at points, fitting in well with Kozelek’s aging sentimentality. But released as a double album, with 16 songs total, it begins to crack in places, and ultimately, starts to sound a bit dull.
The second track on the album, “Chilli Lemon Peanuts” is the best of those 16 attempts. Musically, it’s a bit of a departure from Sun Kil Moon’s previous work, held together by a synth line and a relatively up-tempo snare beat. The song features a spoken word interlude (which isn’t that unusual for Kozelek), with one of the album’s most genuinely tender moments – a brief image of a woman and a child asleep in a hot car, a map open in front of her, and Kozelek tapping on the window of the car to check on them and make sure everything is alright.
He holds off for the first two songs, but by the third track of the album, “Philadelphia Cop,” Kozelek starts on a ranty, bitter, and frankly pretty weak attack against social media and millennials (“I aint’ noone’s puppet / I ain’t noone’s puppet” he goes on, assuring us that he most certainly isn’t anybody’s puppet). The song takes the opportunity to unexpectedly rework a number of David Bowie hits, which comes as a welcome relief from Kozelek’s sabre rattling.
Where Benji was humble, Common as Light is headstrong, with Kozelek appearing increasingly resentful. The effects of Benji’s visibility had Kozelek raging against fellow musicians, music writers, and fans (often with misogynistic overtones). While his lyrics are capable of bald confrontation with life’s incomprehensibility, they’re diluted by cool-guy moralizing about technology and PC culture. And that’s sort of the trap that Sun Kil Moon: the autonomy of Kozelek’s sincerity is at odds with how much stupid shit gets under his skin. He’s not the one that’s mad – you’re mad.
Kozelek’s documentary realism is really what’s at stake here. His claim to an unfiltered authenticity of diary entries and straightforward banalities – an elevated, ultra-sensitive reality – continually bumps up against the social conditions that construct his idea of reality. So while Kozelek contends that his realness is more real than poetic metaphor or ironic detachment, Common As Light sees him perpetually grappling with ideology.
On “Lone Star”, Kozelek sings about wanting to help “the transgenders” and advises: “rednecks bury the axe with transgenders and be strong.” Beyond questions of political rhetoric, Kozelek’s sanctimonious attitude makes for cringey song-writing. On “Window Sash Weight”, a gloomy track in the vein of “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” Kozelek sings about going to play Sarah Lawrence College, and his prediction that “something I say will likely be viewed as offensive and cause a student to be alarmed. / Or if a college girl is nice to me and I speak to her it might be misconstrued and I won’t be pardoned” while Sarah Lawrence gets its redemption later in the album, Kozelek can’t help but get his jabs in. For someone who likes to talk about the gravity of world, Kozelek wastes a disproportionate amount of classically influenced guitar playing on his own whining.
The force of Benji rested on Kozelek’s ability to sketch the complexity of an individual’s life, and recount tragedy without losing sight of empathetic feeling. Common as the Light focuses more on personal grievances and news headlines. Two different songs on the album mention Elisa Lam’s death at the Cecil Hotel, even visiting the hotel himself to investigate. While he makes a gesture to the ethics of his fascination, Kozelek drifts towards conspiracy theories – which is maybe interesting for its own reasons, but also comes at the expense of Kozelek’s own sense of vulnerability. This isn’t the end for Kozelek (there’s certainly something compelling to the idea of this album as a series of failures). But ultimately, Common as the Light shows the limitations of what Kozelek is trying to do, and ends up leaving a funny taste in your mouth.
review by Josh Gabert-Doyon