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REVIEW: Sun Kil Moon – ‘Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood’ (Rough Trade / Caldo Verde)

  • 5/10
    - 5/10


Mark Kozelek’s eighth Sun Kil Moon album is as long and epic as its title suggests, which does his unique style no favours at all.

Mark Edward Kozelek’s eighth Sun Kil Moon album was recorded in the midst and aftermath of 2016, one of the most dramatic (and traumatic) years in recent human history. As he is apt to do, the events and narratives behind Orlando, Nice, fake news and Trump’s election have bled into the fabric of this imposing new double album, Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood.

Formerly one of the most celebrated proponents of slowcore with Red House Painters in the 1990s, their untimely disintegration ultimately led Kozelek to explore a more folk-rock approach in a variety of solo and SKM projects throughout the noughties, but Sun Kil Moon is now to all intents and purposes his own vehicle. 2012’s Among The Leaves saw him change direction in terms of both lyrics and music, discovering a love for nylon-stringed guitar and ambient intimacy, and the last three Sun Kil Moon albums have been unique and disarming experiences. Kozelek’s delivery has grown closer to a diary entry or an inner monologue than anything normally found in popular music, about very specific experiences and detailed memories of, and exchanges with, individuals he’s encountered in his life.

Flitting between the abstract and the literal, often in a non-linear way, Kozelek broke through to a new audience with his 2014 album Benji, arguably the finest record with which he’s ever been involved. 2015’s Universal Themes didn’t quite carry the same magic, but its swift arrival kept his profile up. Nearly two years later, we get a record preoccupied almost entirely by two subjects – Kozelek’s 50th birthday, which was looming over him during its recording, and the events of 2016 in general.

This makes for a sometimes reflective, thought-provoking experience that’s hindered by Kozelek’s occasional over-indulgence. However, when he plays to his strengths, the results are as good as anything else in his discography. The sun-dappled, intricately picked folk guitars of opener ‘God Bless Ohio’ undulate for more than 10 minutes and never get wearisome, and the record’s closer ‘I Love You Forever And Beyond Eternity’ is a similar story, providing strong moments to bookend the record.

As it goes on, however, rather than delivering on the prospect of being Kozelek’s magnum opus, Common As Light… simply becomes too much of a trudge. More than a few tracks seem to act as little more than ballast, and given their average length of over eight minutes each, are the musical equivalents of ‘tl;dr’. The middle section of Common As Light…, in particular, suffers from a notable sag only punctuated by the head-nodding shuffle of ‘Stranger Than Paradise’. The interminable back-to-back pairing of ‘Window Sash Weights’ and ‘Sarah Lawrence College Song’ are the worst offenders in this department, and cause the album to lose its momentum entirely, never to properly regain it. However, this is a consequence of the record’s double structure turns out you can have too much of a good thing.

When it’s good, however, Kozelek’s writing and delivery is as striking as it ever was. The peacocking, almost hip-hop-esque rhythm and groove that he and drummer Steve Shelley (yes, he of Sonic Youth!) lay down in ‘Chili Lemon Peanuts’ is addictive, but the sudden shift into spoken-word territory as he ruminates on mortality and ageing is astounding. Kozelek’s lyrics are like a real-time experience as descriptions of mundane settings bleed into profound thoughts fleeting through his mind. A recollection of him in a hotel in April 2016 with his girlfriend quickly turns into: “we’ll live the rest of our lives together / and that gives me so much happiness and comfort / but it also hit me harder than ever before that one day we’ll say goodbye for a final time.

On the more political side, Kozelek vents against what has seen and experience on the news in the last year. ‘Philadelphia Cop’ ruminates on Bowie’s passing; ‘Bastille Day’ on the Nice terrorist attack, and see him address these subjects in a clear-eyed and non-sentimental fashion. ‘Bergen To Trondheim’ is partly recorded live on tour, as he collides the Orlando nightclub massacre, the Radiohead listening party attack in Istanbul, the shooting of Christina Grimmie and Muhammad Ali’s death all in one. ‘Lone Star’ is the album’s highlight, setting shifting grooves and gorgeous warm guitars to a reflection on technology and the rise of Donald Trump, whom he describes as “our own creation… we can’t face it, but we asked for this junk.”

But these highlights are weighed down by too many tracks that ultimately scan as filler, making the listener pray for a bit of quality control. By shackling himself to this unique method of delivery, one that requires such a great degree of concentration from the listener, for such a long time, Kozelek does himself no favours. Individual tracks make for great listening in isolation, and the subject matter often suits his intimate style well, but at two hours and nine minutes in length, Common As Light… is just far too exhausting and draining as a cumulative listening experience. It could quite easily have been cut down to a regular release by removing half of its tracks and concentrating its highlights. (5/10) (Ed Biggs)

Listen to Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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