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In retrospect, Sun Kil Moon’s 2014 milestone Benji was less of a breakthrough than a breakdown just before Mark Kozelek became definitively mean and petty. Even with Benji’s life-flashing-before-your-eyes earnestness (the repentance! the forgiveness! the laughs! the tears!), its lessons seem to have gone unabsorbed. Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood comes in at 130 minutes. This is after two Sun Kil Moon albums—2015’s Universal Themes, 2016’s Jesu/Sun Kil Moon—that left no one thinking, “I wish these were twice as long.” Kozelek knows that Common as Light isn’t an easy sell. In a particularly forgettable number called “Seventies TV Show Theme Song,” he admits, “All I know is this reminds me of the theme to ‘Barney Miller’/It wasn’t intentional, just adding a song on the record for filler.” It’s not the only lyric on here that simply describes what the music sounds like, or dares you to stop listening. These are by-and-large the most confrontational songs Kozelek has ever put out, but strangely they’re also some of the more exciting ones he’s written since developing his post-Benji spoken word style.
While recent records have found Kozelek lambasting his vinyl-collecting fans and putting the fear of God in the minds of bloggers who miss his Red House Painters days, here Kozelek directs his fury more broadly. He makes three things absolutely clear: he hates iPhones, he hates Twitter, and he hates the twentysomethings who read Twitter on their iPhones. If there’s a theme to this record (the way that, you know, acting in a Paolo Sorrentino film was the theme of the previous Sun Kil Moon LP), it’s that the world is fucked, man, so get off your phone and respect your elders (especially Mark Kozelek). Many songs attempt to reflect Kozelek’s anger following mass shootings to varying degrees of profundity. The awkwardly chipper music in “Bastille Day” creates an effect not dissimilar to Smash Mouth playing the intro to “All Star” on loop while their singer threatens the audience. This mode, as one might imagine, doesn’t add up to a particularly moving collection of songs.
It does, however, make for some surprisingly great moments. In “Philadelphia Cop,” which slowly evolves into a eulogy for David Bowie, Kozelek lands a bitter jab: “If you’re a man in charge claiming you’re a staunch feminist, then give a woman your job or shut the fuck up, Queen Bitch.” In the well-meaning “Lone Star,” he helps save a suicidal woman’s life and tries to convince North Carolina officials to amend their transphobic bathroom laws. The slow, ominous “Sarah Lawrence College Song,” finds him performing a small gig for a group of college students, which obviously leads to him berating them for how much their parents pay for tuition. He replies, “That’s what Walmart pays me to use my music in commercials,” but quickly changes his tone: “Maybe I can go to their school one day too, ‘cause they all seem like really nice people.”
Many of these songs follow similar patterns: Kozelek snaps and sympathizes in the same breath. When he jokes with his colorblind building manager that he wants his tiles “gray… like your hair, man,” he comments just a second later, “Hey, I got a little gray too, I’m not picking on you.” The reason why similarly quotidian story-songs like “Gustavo” or “Jim Wise” hit so hard was because they resulted in double portraits: You learned more about Kozelek through his observations of others. On Common as Light, Kozelek fills the whole frame, increasing the humor and anger, but sacrificing the subtlety. If the diaristic style he developed on his last few releases has been generously compared to novelists like Karl Ove Knausgård or James Joyce, then these songs feel more like Larry David or, at their most vulgar, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
Curiously, Kozelek plays a ton of synth here—a foreign sound for any Sun Kil Moon record. “I’ve found that when you put an instrument in someone’s hands that they aren’t used to playing, interesting things happen,” he noticed in a recent interview. A lot of this does sound new, which is becoming more difficult as he becomes more prolific and the world catches up with him. Phil Elverum cited him as an influence for his upcoming Mount Eerie album, and you can hear pieces of “Carissa” in “Ravens,” just like you can hear “Sunshine in Chicago” in “Okkervil River R.I.P.,” or “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” in Father John Misty’s “Leaving L.A.” Kozelek’s work continues to ripple outward, even as he retreats further and further into himself.
Just last year, a pitch-perfect parody made the rounds, mimicking Kozelek’s style to the point of tricking a few people into thinking a new EP of his had surfaced. The irony is that those pensive, guitar-based songs already sound completely outdated—representative of a different Mark Kozelek from a different time. Such is the nature of his work. Kozelek has always been his own most restless listener, and part of his motivation is simply to keep himself interested in making art, whether that means changing his band name, starting his own record label, or turning his own songwriting process into his muse. “Maybe you’ll hear it and think, ‘I prefer your older songs,’” he sings in “Seventies TV Show Theme,” “Well, maybe the world has changed and I’m not that songwriter anymore.” In spirit, Common as Light resembles his classic work more than he’s willing to admit. After all, his previous epics Rollercoaster and April were emotionally exhausting listens, unfolding with the intensity of a man trying to pack everything he knows into one record. As disorienting and overwhelming as any of Kozelek’s defining albums, Common as Light patiently reveals more of the artist to anyone who’s still paying attention.