Wednesday, March 8, 2017

album review: 'common as light and love are red valleys of blood' by sun kil moon

I have a complicated relationship with Mark Kozelek - and not just because if we ever met in person, we'd probably hate each other with a passion, or at least find the other utterly insufferable.

Of course, this would rely upon Mark Kozelek logging onto the internet or YouTube, and that's never going to happen - his resentment of social media of any kind is near-legendary. But in this hypothetical, should we ever meet, he'd probably brand me as an overly-earnest, frequently annoying hipster poptimist that's still too damn pretentious for his own good. And at the same time, I'd probably brand him as a technophobic rockist curmudgeon who is just as pretentious and whose underlying pathology of bitter nihilism is intolerable and shoddily justified. And the hilarious thing is that while we'd probably end up hating each other buried deep down we'd probably have some grudging acknowledgement of our similarities, of the other's insight and intellect and how our statements about each other probably ring more true than we'd prefer to admit, at least not without a veneer of irony.

And that's the thing: as much as I'd probably hate Kozelek in person, from an artistic standpoint I find him a profoundly fascinating figure, and one where my frustrations are rooted in many of the parallels and flaws I see in my own short stories and novel. Self-aware framing but never quite as deep as it could be to mine deeper insight, poetic and detailed and ultimately deconstructionist in his themes, but never enough to mine it into a cohesive narrative, all against instrumentation and tones that can be as inviting as they are abrasive. Much of my complicated emotions culminated in my controversial review of Benji, his critically-adored 2014 record of which I admired a fair amount of the craft but thematically frustrated me to no end. And while I was planning to cover his tangled and ultimately overlong 2015 album Universal Themes - to which I'd argue hits a few underappreciated and stunning high notes - it ended up getting lost in the shuffle. So in order to make up for that, I decided to cover his newest record Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood - a title that says more about him than any of my rambling for the past few minutes ever will - and its mammoth two hour plus runtime. In other words, I was gearing up for a monster of a double album - how did it go?

Well, I'll say this: I've given this album on average about six or seven listens and really worked to dig in as deep as I could into his writing and lyrics. I've given this record over fourteen hours of my time over the past week trying to untangle its knotted yet scattershot ideas and rambling, because it sure as hell was a fascinating listen. And I think - finally - I've got a handle on my thoughts on it and how best to contextualize what Mark Kozelek put together - and yet note that for as much as I now understand it, I wouldn't quite say I loved it, ironically for similar reasons that compromised my feelings on Benji. Again, fascinating listen... but outside of certain bits, not one for which I'm in a hurry to revisit.

Because here's the thing: this project has a surprising amount in common with Benji, especially when you dig into the subject matter and themes - and yes, we're starting with a deep dive here, as it's easily the reason why anyone would listen to any Mark Kozelek album, especially given that he's opted for much more of a spoken word style where the instrumentation is intended to support his words rather than stand out more than ever before. Like most of Benji, the backdrop of this album is strewn with death, specifically between the period of January to mid-August of 2016, although the stories told seem to play very loosely with any sort of chronological progression. And just like with Benjii it rapidly becomes apparent that Kozelek with rare exception is using these deaths almost as a backdrop to his own intense awareness of his own place in time and his own mortality... but this time around, it feels different. For one, the deaths Kozelek mentions aren't just people he and the audience barely knows, which led to an odd sense of detachment and distance to run through the writing and delivery of Benji that never clicked for me - no, despite there being a few callbacks to Benji like with Richard Ramirez on the meandering hotel investigation on 'Stranger Than Paradise', the deaths here feel bigger and seem to leave Kozelek a little more shaken and on-edge, be they David Bowie on 'Philadelphia Cop' and Muhammad Ali on 'Early June Blues' to a close friend named Butch where the details feel all the more vivid and intimate. But it's not just the names this time around, it's the atmosphere, often conveyed through the bare-bones basslines and sharp percussion and off-kilter melodies that comprise so much of this album's instrumentation - death was a specter on Benji but here it feels much more omnipresent, from the news broadcasts that pepper the album to the lingering feelings of tension, panic and loss that came to epitomize so much of 2016 for so many people. 

And yet throughout all of this, Kozelek continues to live and breathe and skip movies and lose money on boxing matches and go for walks and increasingly cherish his relationships, both with his long-suffering girlfriend and his audience - and you can tell even that realization rattles him, especially considering his interest in strange, inexplicable deaths hasn't gone away like on the twin stories of 'The Highway Song', and yet he of all people continues to live, with his thoughts frequently drifting to being a year before fifty and overweight. And while I was critical of the lack of satisfying narrative conclusions on Benji, when going through this record... I'm not sure if it is the more sprawling yet intimate feeling of tension or my own acceptance of these sorts of narratives, but it seems to connect better here, and I think I know why. For a brief sidebar, over the past year or so I've been watching more than a few Richard Linklater movies, and one thing he's seemed to be very conscious of is the notion of time: from his Before trilogy to Boyhood, you can tell there's a focus on capturing periods in what many would consider ordinary lives. And I bring up Boyhood because Linklater is choosing to capture specific moments in this life that might feel thematically diffuse, not always contributing to what one thinks is the narrative of life - mostly because as much as we don't want to admit it, there is no defined narrative. Trends and tropes and patterns, sure, but we can't live by the set path, especially in confronting the existential crisis at its ending - and yet by the act of telling the story, we are indeed capturing scenes. And coming back to Kozelek, when you combine his routines that feel all the more entrenched, when you start to see death all around you and ratchet up the tension, his attention to mundane detail and the lived-in experience picks up a bit of weight, especially when placed in that tighter focus.

Here's the problem: despite the length potentially deceiving you as to otherwise, Kozelek is still choosing which stories to tell, and there's a distinction between existential anxiety in the face of death and just fucking with the audience because he has you on the album for two hours. And like it or not, you're still dealing with Kozelek himself, a sanctimonious technophobic hypocrite who has some frustrating gaps in his self-awareness and insight. He's more than willing to play to the crowd and jump on a big soapbox about gun control or trans acceptance like on 'Lone Star' and 'Bergen To Trondheim', but it can feel more than a little self-serving when he includes multiple letters from promoters and fans exclaiming how much his music changed their lives - again, I don't doubt these moments are true, but note he's making the choice to include them. He's also making the choice to take broad swipes at music journalism on 'Philadelphia Cop' - very much justified - oversensitive audiences on 'Window Sash Weights' - still mostly justified - and the American public for embracing Donald Trump as he just feeds into their stupid no-attention span culture and Internet obsession on 'Lone Star'... which I would agree with if there weren't three facts standing in the way. One, when the social media-obsessed millennials did vote they voted for Clinton, so his correlation doesn't equal causation; two, Kozelek is more than willing to play to millennial entitlement when they buy tickets to his shows; and three, the cynical blend of earnestness, ironic detachment, insecurity and self-obsession was rooted in his boomer generation, and you'd think he'd recognize his meandering navel gazing and commitment to overloaded mundane detail in his art isn't that far removed from your average Instagram or Twitter feed. Granted, I'll give Kozelek some credit for at least acknowledging his inability to connect on songs like 'Seventies TV Show Theme Song' - but for an album as extended and overwritten as this one is, I have a hard time justifying acknowledgement as enough, especially when added revelations Kozelek does hit, almost by accident, feel increasingly perfunctory, especially when even he admits that he's making filler on the back half of this record!

And that's the other frustrating thing: many people have already harped on the length of this project, but I'm not averse to longer songs if and when they're telling an interesting story or flesh out the details.. The spoken word piece on 'Chili Lemon Peanuts' easily could have stood alone minus the first half of the songs, 'Window Sash Weights' could have been cut in half, especially as it really feels more like planting for the payoff on 'Stranger In Paradise', and while I get the intent behind 'Vague Rock Song', Kozelek even admits at the end of the song it's a conceptual failure, and that's before we get the extended letter on 'Sarah Lawrence College Song' I would have cut entirely. That's not saying the length can't be justified: the detail of 'Butch Lullaby' only highlights how much more the loss of this long-time backstage crew member resonates for both Kozelek and other musicians; the conceptual detachment and missed communications works for the narrative of 'Seventies TV Show Theme Song', and the listless sleepless night of 'Philadelphia Cop' in the wake of David Bowie's passing definitely resonates, although part of that might be driven by my own lingering emotions there. Hell, is that the reason 'I Love Portugal' is my favourite song here, a brief moment of light in a sea of tumult where Kozelek finds a moment of peace while on tour there that very much mimics my own last year? No, I wouldn't quite say that - it might be more because of the instrumentation, of which I haven't talked much because again, backseat to the lyrics. But credit must be given where it's due, because for as stripped down as many of these instrumentals are, Kozelek does put together some solid pieces - the eerie bassy synth loop that anchors 'Philadelphia Cop' perfectly captures the unease of the track and fits with the fragile overdubs, the buzzy grinding tension of 'The Highway Song' and 'Bergen To Trondheim', the blurry melancholic guitar behind 'Window Sash Weights', the organ that holds against the great bass texture of 'Bastille Day' that actually picks up some blues rock muscle, all the way to the sax that shows up on '70s TV Show Theme Song' because of course it does. But again, 'I Love Portugal' probably works most for me because the main melody hits that serene vibe so well and the vocal harmonies are phenomenally well-balanced - and yeah, this comes back to Kozelek himself, because where I found his vocals so frustrating on Benji, he seems to not just have more of a command of his range to bring some visceral intensity - the project with Jesu probably helped there - but also not dabble with frustrating offkilter overdubs and stick with harmonies that do wonders for giving a meandering record some recognizable hooks.

But then again, if there was an album that made me think I need to go back and revisit Benji at length, it'd probably be Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood. I would not call this a great listen - Kozelek is still a frustrating presence to be with over the course of two hours, and there's a distinctive difference between focusing on minutia in order to deflect from existential dread and just wasting the audience's time or engaging in the sort of hypocrisy where he gave himself the time to write himself out of it and didn't. There are other gripes - I wished the melodies evolved a little more, there are some tunes that could have been trimmed, and it's telling that Natalie Hemby did in less than three mintues with 'Cairo, IL' what Kozelek tried to do on 'God Bless Ohio' in ten - but overall, there are very few songwriters as detailed, witty, and who can stumble into insight quite like Mark Kozelek, and I can respect that a lot. For me, this is a very strong 7/10 and a recommendation... providing, of course, you can handle all two plus hours of it. I can't promise that you'll like this, but I can definitely say you'll remember it if you give it attention.

And if you're looking to capture diffuse moments in time, Kozelek can do it incredibly well. I might not like him all that much, but I think I understand and respect him, and I think to the both of us, that would matter more.

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