Sound — 8
No matter how pleasing, abrasive, revealing or self-serving, Mark Kozelek is a songwriter who marches to the beat of his own drum, and the past few Sun Kil Moon albums demonstrate such. When his choice to take a turn into minimal indie folk fueled by classical guitar inspiration in 2010's "Admiral Fell Promises" was met with some wishing for the return of rich instrumental arrangements of Sun Kil Moon's earlier work, Kozelek only pushed further down that path with 2012's trust-your-gut songwriting process of "Among the Leaves." Two years later, Kozelek's choice to deliver his deeply personal lyrics in "Benji" with a vocal style that was more storyteller than singer earned massive acclaim, but the following album, 2015's "Universal Themes," further pursued that narrative vocal style to a point which left many listeners hoping that it was just a phase that would be ending soon.
As polarizing of a response as "Universal Themes" spurred, Kozelek shows no qualms about indulging this new songwriting approach in Sun Kil Moon's double-length eighth album, "Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood." Consisting of even more singspeak and spoken word this time around, songs are generally built on sparse arrangements and few progressions (see the folksy fingerpicking of "God Bless Ohio" and the melancholy keyboard melodies of "Early June Blues"), merely serving as a thin instrumental bedding for his laser-focused lyrical narratives. With this mentality, rhythm sections get more authority, where bass grooves and syncopated drumbeats conjure a funk flavor in "Chili Lemon Peanuts," "Lone Star," and "Vague Rock Song," and even toe the line of hip hop in "Philadelphia Cop" and "The Highway Song" with Kozelek's singspeak vocals on top.
Understanding this minimalism, Kozelek doesn't completely abandon all attempts to elaborate more in songs, but his attempts made in "Common as..." are done in the interest of subverting his musical expectations of yesteryear, and the music world at large. This is done most obviously in the satirical "Vague Rock Song" and "Seventies TV Show Theme," where Kozelek ribs his own kitschy songwriting in the moment, but other moments are more subtle, like the quaint indie folk cut of "I Love Portugal" sullied by modular synths imitating toy police sirens, and the cheering audience samples that respond to his vocals in "Bergen to Trondheim," which, knowing Kozelek, is used as a snide jab at his own pontificating rather than an earnest choice in the production.
The most prominent use of counter-intuitive songwriting in the album, however, is his choice of presenting the spoken word segments in songs with non-sequitur music interludes. From breaking the simple synth flows of "The Highway Song" and "Butch Lullaby" with abrupt acoustic transitions, to stifling the budding retro arrangement of "Seventies TV Show Theme" with sullen guitar melodies, Kozelek owns up to the jarring switch from singing to spoken word by changing up the music with it, instead of trying to solve the issue of making these switches seamless that was present in "Universal Themes." In this, he essentially turns this odd new piece into a proper recurring motif.
Lyrics — 10
Kozelek is no stranger to the topic of death and how he processes it, which he covered extensively in 2014's "," but his approach to that topic in "Common as...," intertwined in with the year 2016 as an overload of tragedy and the penultimate year before he turns 50 years old, is an emotional outpouring that's overwhelmingly self-reflective yet still relatable.
For the many who felt that 2016 was a rough year to live through, Kozelek lets the listener know that he felt the exact same way, chronologically combing through the majority of last year throughout the album. Taking the recollection trick of "Where were you when you found out that [X] happened?", Kozelek not only runs the gamut recalling world tragedies (from the Pike County murders in his home state in "God Bless Ohio," to the attack in Nice, France in "Bastille Day," and the mass stabbing in Japan in "I Love You Forever and Beyond Eternity") and the deaths of heroes and loved ones (mentioning David Bowie in "Philadelphia Cop" and Muhammad Ali in "Early June Blues," and writing about his friend's funeral in "Butch Lullaby"), but his ability to describe those moments at a granular level is par excellence.
Though a big part, the relative overload of tragic moments in 2016 is but one part of the bigger picture in Kozelek's perspective of life and death, tragedy and beauty throughout the album. Noting numerous times that he'll be turning 50 years old after the end of the year, 2016 as the penultimate year before that birthday milestone turns out to be equal parts illuminating and agonizing. In "Chili Lemon Peanuts," he speaks on his fear of when he might die, and when his older age may be too burdensome of a life, yet still finds fascination in death via his interest in true crime, from reciting classic true crime stories in "The Highway Song," to detailing his visit to the Cecil Hotel where Elisa Lam mysteriously died in "Stranger Than Paradise." And though he states his unconditional love and utter need for music in his life in "God Bless Ohio" and "Early June Blues," the listener can feel him being extra rattled when mentioning the murders at live concerts in "Bergen To Trondheim," understanding that something like that could happen at one of his shows.
Filled with the seemingly ceaseless stream of doom and gloom of last year, Kozelek's answer to continue living in a world so cruel is just as much all around him as the tragedies. From recounting every little sweet moment had with his girlfriend throughout the album, to reading a heartfelt letter a promoter wrote to him in "Sarah Lawrence College Song" and witnessing a Syrian cashier giving a homeless man something to eat in "Vague Rock Song," the sweet things in life are as bountiful as can be for those who can appreciate it.
Overall Impression — 9
Being the third album in this new stylistic phase of Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek makes the most out of this "narrative over music" approach in "Common as..." Changing up the music chemistry to offer some new flavors and to better suit this songwriting style is one improvement from the previous album, but the real triumph of "Common as..." is its pertinent subject matter going beyond simply rehashing a cavalcade of harrowing headlines. Kozelek's navigation through a year of woe to a sense of enlightenment in a callous world is a poetic journey that's both deeply personal but still applicable to the listener - we're all surrounded by life's beauty and tragedy, and all anyone can do is take it in stride and keep their compassion alive.