I just finished listening to Sun Kil Moon’s new record Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood and I’m exhausted. It’s mostly a collaboration between singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek and drummer Steve Shelley, and in a concurrent interview, Kozelek says, “We just go into the studio and make music and eat Mexican food.” Really, the album sounds like they did exactly that. At times, he rants about Trump or babbles about flying to Las Vegas for minutes at a time, or drops science like a rapper more than an indie-folk artist. It’s got flashes of brilliance and humor, but it’s an unwieldy, ungodly mess.
Still, I don’t feel critical of this record. It was clearly made by a fifty-year-old man who’s made music for almost 25 years. He’s lived several lifetimes beyond the critics who choose to disparage him. If you’re a fan or have researched the man, think of Kozelek’s rural upbringing in Ohio, his signing to 4AD Records in 1992, and his late-career renaissance in 2014 with his album Benji. Now, he has chosen to make a record that explains, to the detail, what is happening at his life at the very moment. He’s growing older, loves his girlfriend and his life in San Francisco and has found no use for symbolism, metaphor or self-editing when he chooses to cut a record. He’s doing what he wants.
I guess I can relate to that. One night last year, I hedged a bar bet with friends as to whether I could make an accurate parody album of Sun Kil Moon. I did it the next afternoon, recording three Kozelek-esque songs with a classical guitar and a four-track and posting them to Bandcamp. I woke up the next morning and found the EP had gone viral; it had been covered by NPR – All Songs Considered, Stereogum, The A.V. Club, Brooklyn Vegan and other major sites. I’d played in bands for years, but I had never gotten national press coverage. From there, I became fodder for murderous comment sections and armchair revisions by friends and family. Strangers stopped me on the street. One year later, this still happens.
Determined to speak my piece about the absurd experience, I pitched a story to the editor-in-chief of a favorite website, a site I’d written for before. It was published, and then a series of professional emails became a friendship, and, eventually, that blossomed into a long-distance romance.
In August 2015, we finally met in Seattle, WA. Too broke to afford plane tickets, I took a thirty-hour Amtrak trip to meet her. We spent a week together, and we decided to start dating one dazed night at a karaoke bar as someone muddled their way through a Shins song. I decided right then and there to move to New York. Now, we live together, have started a band, and are happy. To support myself in this bizarre, heightened city that I’d never been to before, I called up a bunch of friends in bands and begged to publicize their bands for money. Now, I’m a professional publicist for a company called Five Roses Press with my dear friend Julien. I obviously don’t write for my now-girlfriend’s website anymore (she’s a stickler for journalistic ethics), but I’m willing to bet this has been a fair trade.
In 2017, we’re at a point where musicians have no fear to do exactly what they want. The amazingly prolific songwriter Robert Pollard is about to release his 100th album, Guided by Voices’ August by Cake. Neil Young’s recent album Peace Trail is a sloppy, extended rant about the Dakota Access Pipeline, complete with robot noises and autotune. Whether confronted by the Internet, old age or by just not giving a shit, this is an amazing time for unfiltered candor in music.
Common as Light is a reminder of this. It’s a two-hour, babbling, indigestible album, featuring free-verse ranting about music journalists, watching boxing on TV and remodeling a bathroom. My girlfriend and I listened in our South Williamsburg apartment, and we were left dizzy, overwhelmed and fed up after two hours of this onslaught. There are hysterical moments, like when “Philadelphia Cop” grinds to a halt so Kozelek can stage a silly skit between himself and a vapid journalist. “Like, do you get to wear a laminate?” asks Valley Girl Kozelek, twirling his hair. But mostly, the effect is like a drive through the middle of nowhere where you start to lose your mind. The second song, “Chili Lemon Peanuts,” reaches such a fever-pitch of talking, talking, talking that the effect is almost like listening to hiking boots clomp around in a drier.
But I’m glad Kozelek made it. I’m happy for him, that he could get the contents of the last six months of his life out in the public, for his own processing.
And I’m happy, too. Listening to these absurdly long, drawn-out rants set to what sound like my neighbors jamming in the basement, I feel less criticism than validation. If I had been afraid of the critics, naysayers and backseat drivers, I would have never decided to make my parody EP. My life wouldn’t have changed so drastically, forever. I wouldn’t be with my person. We wouldn’t be happily co-fronting a band and playing shows. I wouldn’t have the leverage to pursue my own interests in this city. I enjoyed being in California, playing in bands and making ends meet, but I wouldn’t have gotten very far beyond that if I didn’t go for it. I was emulating Kozelek’s grumpy, unfiltered attitude just for a laugh, but taking that chance led me somewhere I never imagined I’d be.