Mark Kozelek ties together so many impulses that it is hard not to be infuriated by him. On one hand, he wants to tap a little into that Michael Hurley 60s optimism but his cynicism prevents him from fully doing so. People are polarized by his work for good reason: wildly inconsistent, picking fights with bands/bloggers/whoever, strange theories about murders, etc. Among all of this, the good and the bad, there’s that honesty that rests in the center of what he does making it feel strangely compelling.
Unlike his “Universal Themes” album, Sun Kil Moon’s “Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood” feels more complete and fully realized despite the double-disc status. Themes are visited and revisited with great consistency. His optimism tends to follow that of “teach your children well” for his few unfiltered moments of happiness flows out of his experiences with Sarah Lawrence College students, their good work, how their exploratory ethos is something he can relate to, and what he hopes the next generation will fully embrace. Other happiness comes from the relationships he has with friends and family, many of whom appear as characters throughout the album.
The album references his age, oftentimes in self-deprecating ways, mentioning his gut and the size of guts of similarly-aged people when performing in Las Vegas. Within this moment he mentions how he never saw such a thing happening to him. Rather ridiculous is the almost embarrassing name-dropping cool uncle style of “Seventies TV Show Theme Song” at least the opening first half. Over this first half of the piece Mark Kozelek mentions a wide variety of references to 70s TV, 70s stars, and this continues for quite a while. For the latter half of the song things shift dramatically becoming something surreal and beautiful. A conversation with the repairman shows that he can be rather compassionate. Even once he returns to the 70s reference within a dream the dream is quite lovely, in fact one of the highlights of the album.
Multiple dreams find their way woven into the album’s DNA. “Chili Lemon Peanuts” too approaches elements that show Mark Kozelek letting Sun Kil Moon represent his own internal fears and worries about the future. All the media mentioned, the way it is all taken in, and the last hurrahs of an old boxer (which seems apropos given Sun Kil Moon’s very name is owed to the name of a boxer). This multi-faceted nature means that to pin down exactly what Mark Kozelek believes, which is frustrating but also earnest. Rather than state he has the answers, he claims to have no answers but admits to be trying to figure things out. Being opinionated (and he certainly is) does not mean the same as knowing, a distinction that helps to better accept some of the more ‘heart in the right place mind’s not’ moments that litter the album along with a few opinions that seem to be very much out of leftfield.
Over the course of the album the songs veer dramatically through a wide variety of suites and stylistic choices. Tension looms thanks to the predominance of the bass which rumbles through with a sense of the ominous. Conversely, Mark Kozelek lets the gentlest arrangements help to temper his disappointment, such as his political opinions, opinions on social media (he dislikes it, obviously) and his belief that heavy usage of social media results in a great deal of squandered opportunity, alongside the destruction of his beloved San Francisco. To the former point on social media preventing people from fully utilizing their talents, he does not do it with anger towards those who use it only those who profit by stealing people’s time away. His focus on San Francisco, on the way that it is seeing the history stripped away for a fruit shake, possesses venom towards those indifferent of any sense of the traditions that built the city.
Hope, despair, confusion, this reigns supreme. By offering up a stream-of-consciousness approach the album sprawls. The length certainly adds to this seemingly endless usage of imagery, insight, international failures, death, politics, and everything else that Mark Kozelek sees informing his reality. Additionally, it seems interesting that no specific political side seems to be taken, only words for the downtrodden. Thus, it is impossible to tell if his comment about his love of serial killers “It is my right as an American” is sarcastic/serious or something else altogether.
What remains the most intriguing is how much is said throughout, the arrangements penned, without knowing Sun Kil Moon’s exact intention. Do they intend on creating music in the vein of folk music that remains truthful, as truthful as is possible in a stream-of-consciousness approach? Does the heavy reliance on bass reflect a tension that rests within the lyrics, of the lingering self-doubt that appears throughout? The only thing that does seem apparent is Sun Kil Moon’s desire to find the good that exists within the world. Perhaps “Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood” shows Sun Kil Moon embracing the universal joys that inform the world, of the natural world and inherent goodness of people. For in a moment where so little seems reassuring, so much is chaotic and unclear, maybe the most comforting thing to hear is a musician trying to figure it out in front of the audience in real time.