Former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek spends much of the 16-track, 129-minute-long Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood following up the technique he first developed on 2014’s Benji: recounting every single thing he thinks and experiences in a spoken-word stream of consciousness. Sometimes the banality is compelling (“Chili Lemon Peanuts,” opener “God Bless Ohio”), sometimes not (“Bergen to Trondheim”), and sometimes it’s a dumb parody of itself (“Vague Rock Song,” “Seventies TV Show Theme Song”), but only committed listeners will get that far on a straight listen-through.
Probably the most interesting thing about Common as Light is that it cements Kozelek’s new approach to songwriting, so we can compare his current output and persona to three other figures.
The first and most obvious is Bruce Springsteen. Like Springsteen, Kozelek is a sort of “political landscape” singer, giving us razor-sharp pictures of American working-class life and the distortions of the American dream (though, on Common as Light, Kozelek seems to be just as happy to tell us stories about the glamorous life of the middle-aged rock star drinking shiny cocktails in expensive hotels).
The second is German performance artist provocateur Joseph Beuys, who extended the basic idea of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (a men’s urinal made art by being placed in a gallery) into everyday life, developing the idea of the “social sculpture” to explain how everything an artist does can be thought of as art in its own right. Kozelek seems to apply this principle to his relentlessly autobiographical songwriting. He plays up the significance of everything that happens to him, making everything worthy of being written and sung about, from the gritty stickiness of the peanuts he is eating, to his take on hyperactive news coverage of mass shootings seen from the comfort of some anonymous hotel room, to everything he passes when he is driving on the California freeway.
The third is The Rolling Stones. Mark Kozelek has made lots of records: 7 with Red House Painters, 10 with Sun Kil Moon (including two collaborations with Jesu), and 28 as a solo artist, including a lot of live albums. Like The Rolling Stones (with the exception of Exile on Main Street), many of his records are full of filler, meaning that the best thing he ever makes may well end up being a “greatest hits”-type thing. Common as Light is not only no exception to this rule, it’s actually the clearest indication of this problem.
Kozelek spends a lot of time on Common as Light giving us his broadly “common sense” liberal pluralist live-and-let-live shtick, punctuated by grumpy bashings of “hipster” culture and its parades of regenerated tenement buildings and juice bars, music journalists, and Father John Misty, but it’s only on 10-minute opener and standout track “God Bless Ohio” that he really bares his soul.
“God Bless Ohio” rests on a rolling breakbeat that wouldn’t be out of place in an old chicken-scratch funk cut, a lolloping bass line ripped right out of late-1970s dub (with deliciously springy echo on the vocals) and pretty, twinkling guitars. Lyrically, it’s a sweeping vista of the crumpled landscape of Trump’s America — an eerie Midwestern gothic tale about a once-proud house long since left to rot. It’s partially a loving hymn to Kozelek’s friends, family, and fellow countrymen, full of short stories of how people have grown up and left, but it’s at its best when it does the “political landscape” thing, working as a sad indictment of a distinct culturally shared experience of abandonment.