Mark Kozelek has always approached songwriting as if he’s stepping into a confessional. But his albums from the ‘90s, mainly recorded with his band Red House Painters, sound like someone somewhat uncomfortable with baring his soul. As the years have worn on, and he’s shed the more impenetrable elements from his work, Kozelek now feels like he’s the kind of person who visits his priest just to shoot the shit, sins and all.
This trajectory really kicked off with 2014’s Benji. With that record, he fixed his gaze on mortality and he’s never really flinched since. Heartbreak and more worldly disappointments seem to be of less pressing importance to him. As he pushes 50 and friends and family members die, his songs are more familiar with life’s transient nature. It’s as if he wants to catalogue every single daily occurrence, every new loss or gain, in his increasingly longer songs as a means of bestowing the cosmos with a greater sense of meaning. Life may be short and cruel but when you write about every nook and cranny of it, it sure gets harder to consider it totally without purpose.
On this new record, Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood, he’s a little lighter when it comes to death itself. It still crops up from time to time but, overall, the album is more about watching life fade and shine in equal measure.
It’s more useful to see Kozelek as a writer first and a songwriter second these days. For that matter, he’s more diarist than he is author. These songs are so personal it often becomes uncomfortable to listen to them. Not because they’re divulging too much extremely touchy information but because they’re unrelenting in their conveyance of mundane details. It’s not even quite stream of consciousness. There’s always a clear through line to the songs but they’re the sort of stories it’d be easy to tune out if the one telling them wasn’t Mark Kozelek.
That’s his unique charm and something he shares with great modern writers like Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy. Like the latter, Kozelek abandoned all flourishes in his prose to better convey the world as it truly is. While he may not be as fixated on the most nihilistic and heinous elements of life on earth as McCarthy, they share a homespun, folksy sense of seeing the “one-damn-thing-after-another” experience as innately worthy of putting down in writing. It’s as if to say the very pointlessness described is somehow also the point of reality itself.
For such a long and dreary album, it’s hard to lose focus listening to it. The songs are tuneful enough and there’s something hypnotic about each track’s subject matter. Occasionally, Kozelek goes off in directions either darkly comic or totally absurd (a dialogue between a Valley Girl type and himself talking at SXSW that he performs both sides of, the cheesy instrumentation backing his remembrance of too-close-for-comfort terrorist attacks) but he largely stays within the parameters of simple and non-controversial yarn spinning.
The most interesting thing going on here musically is Kozelek’s near total eschewing of traditional song structures. These 10-minute odes are unpredictable, sometimes becoming unrecognizable as the same track within three or four minutes. And as he’s become less of a poet and more of a chronicler, he’s also become less of an ornate orchestrator and more a minimalist. There are times when Kozelek soundtracks his observations with little more than repetitive bass and drums.
Each new Sun Kil Moon album both further acquaints and distances the listener with Mark Kozelek. His life story is known to anyone who’ll listen to him but what remains unknown is how he became so comfortable relating every element of his day. His age, weight gain and romantic missteps figure next to international tragedies and memories of great concerts he’s been to. This is ultimately a record about the limitless ways human beings will find to make sense of and talk about the weirdness of our everyday lives.