Sun Kil Moon - Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood
- Released: February 17 2017
- Label: Caldo Verde
I think the musical career of Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek can (for now) be divided into 3 periods: first is his band the Red House Painters, second is the SKM albums from Ghosts of the Great Highway to Benji; the third is Benji to today.
Benji captured something beyond special. Something new. Something that looked back across music, life events and the shadows cast by both, then illuminated a path which Mark Kozelek continues down to where we he is today.
Today, common as light and love are red valleys of blood... I didn’t really give this opening line and title much thought when I first listened to the album, but now, after 3 or 4 listens, I can see that it captures 2 important themes and lyrically ties together 2 inevitable opposites: Life and Death. For those who are even half-acquainted with Mark Kozelek’s lyrical content will not be surprised to hear that this new album once again puts life and death front and centre. That point is an important one for a review of this album, which is: this is not a good starting point for those who are not yet acquainted with any Mark Kozelek music. It is a difficult album, about 2 hours long, oddly devoid of singing, peculiarly bass-driven as opposed to guitar and very much a collection of spoken-word stories as opposed to ever being a collection of songs containing verse/chorus/verse/chorus...
I don’t want to make that sound too negative though, so feel I should say now that this is a brilliant album. It just is an album for SKM fans. But everyone should be an SKM fan. If you’ve listened to SKM but don’t like what you hear, then hopefully this review will help persuade you to try again. If you’re not yet an SKM fan cause you haven’t heard their stuff, but are interested: start by listening to Carry me Ohio, Lost Verses, and Carissa.
So, highlights of note for SKM fans: perhaps more so than any other SKM album, this album is full of boxing references; it is an album full of references to other bands and musicians; it is album full of humour; it is an album full of poetry. It even brings all of these together on the song Bergen to Trondheim which is included on this album as a live recording with the audience singing along to Muhammad Ali’s two word poem “Me. We.”
Are you aware that Mark Kozelek knows Father John Misty? That he gets texts from Sufjan Stevens? That Kurt Hammett from Metallica went to college after Metallica made it big? ... On track 7 Sarah Lawrence College Song Mark shares that fact with the students at Sarah Lawrence College - it is met with a thud.
After sharing that anecdote with the listener, Mark does something very strange. The tone of Sarah Lawrence College Song suddenly jumps as he reads a note from a student at Sarah Lawrence College which he only finds 3 nights later in a New York hotel. The note is about the connection the student feels with Mark’s music, in particular with Benji. The vocals are doubled and begin to echo as the song progresses to the end of Mark reading the note...until the note and the song end without any comment from Mark on what he makes of the note. He simply repeats the words “This is my Sarah Lawrence College song” together with a heavy bass line. It’s all quite odd. It sets a peculiar tone for the next song Butch Lullaby which I think is my personal highlight of the album.
Butch was a friend of Mark’s. Who died. We hear another heavy bass playing, with harsh drums, and Mark speaking the story of Butch and who he was: “Butch had that Sonny Liston stare-down if you deserved it...” The bass and drums disappear and an almost harp-like sounding guitar or mandolin plays as Mark visits memories of his friend Butch, who he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to. This back and forth loops over and over for over 8&1/2 minutes and ends with the lines “When we left the room several of the people began climbing the long ladder that leads to the roof. They asked me to join but I said, "No fucking way, I'm too old". It was late and I was ready to go home. As I left a band was playing in the main room and lots of pizza boxes were everywhere and beers all around and girls were dancing. Butch would've loved it. I hugged a few familiar faces goodbye and headed out onto Hyde Street into the heart of the Tenderloin like I've done so many times over the years. This time Butch didn't follow me out like he would often do asking me to buy him a 40...”
Sun Kil Moon can be a band you listen to and automatically connect with but this new album is more like opening a book of poetry. Recent collaborations between SKM and Desertshore, Jimmy LaValle and most recently with Jesu have produced outstanding pieces - listen to SKM & Desertshore Brothers or SKM & Jesu Exodus, or my personal favourite, Somehow the wonder of life prevails from the album Perils from the Sea by Mark Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle.
Common As Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood requires attention, it requires you to be a part of it. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s in anyway an exaggeration to say Mark Kozelek occupies a place in a long line of respected American artists who have one by one commented on and reflected the beauty and the tragedy of the country. Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, e.e. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Edward Hopper, Larry Eigner, Robert Altman... Mark Kozelek’s name is on that list too, and while this album is not an appropriate place to begin your relationship with the playful poetry within the work of SKM, it will be a fascinating and fun chapter once the time is right.