Liked That? Try This is a fortnightly column: I pick a trending album and recommend three others based on their shared musical ideas, aesthetics or approaches. This week – Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood.
Mark Kozelek is an asshole, and he knows it. Whether it be directly insulting fans, vitriolic onstage rants about female journalists (cloaked, of course, behind the facade of ‘satire’) or releasing the single ‘War on Drugs: Suck My Cock’ after supposedly being drowned out by the eponymous band during a festival performance, the Sun Kil Moon mastermind seems entirely unconcerned with the feelings of supporters and detractors alike. It would be easy enough to simply separate the art from the artist and leave it at that, but paradoxically Kozelek’s abrasive, pig-headed nature is the foundation of his genius. Reflected in a total refusal to artistically compromise or otherwise shape his music to the whims of others, Kozelek has produced several canon classics over a decades-long career, starting with the sad-bastard music par excellence of Red House Painters’ Rollercoaster before transitioning to masterful, lush Americana on Ghosts of the Great Highway, the first LP under his current Sun Kil Moon moniker. In many ways, the two hour-plus behemoth that is Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood feels like a culmination of sorts. Further developing the intensely diaristic lyrical style introduced on 2014’s Benji, epics like ‘Bergen to Trondheim’ and ‘Highway Song’ spill over with place names, times, dates and historical references, Kozelek documenting his existence in forensic, almost obsessive detail. We get lengthy diatribes on terrorist attacks (‘Bergen to Trondheim’), the North Carolina bathroom bill (‘Lone Star’) and Kozelek’s fear of aging (‘Chili Lemon Peanuts’) with a delivery closer to pure spoken word than ever. The music jumps without warning or logic between quasi-hip-hop grooves, gentle acoustic fingerpicking and whatever the hell the tribal chants and afro-rhythms of ‘Vague Rock Song’ are supposed to be. Overlong, obtuse, self-absorbed, bitter – but there won’t be another album released this year that’s even remotely comparable.
“I liked the conversational, darkly humorous lyrics.”
Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much to Love
On the surface, the songwriting styles of Smog’s Bill Callahan and Mark Kozelek seem cut from the same cloth – lyrical dissections of life’s everyday mundanities and disappointments, backed by skeletal, stately folk and shot through with streaks of black humor. But while Kozelek, especially in his more recent work, often assumes the role of dispassionate chronicler, sneering at the drunk staggering home from the bar, Callahan is that drunk, no mere observer – when he laughs, we as listeners are laughing with him, not at him. Consequently, Callahan’s words possess a stark humanity and depth of empathy that Kozelek cannot hope to match, his rich baritone adding emotion and gravitas to the tragic ‘Rock Bottom Riser’ and melancholy warmth to ‘Drinking at the Dam’. Opener ‘Palimpsest’ is a gorgeous example of Callahan’s gift for an economical melody and deeply powerful, deceptively simple turns of phrase.
“I like the complex, nonlinear song structures and folkier elements”
Roy Harper – Stormcock
Sadly, Roy Harper is probably best known for his sardonic lead vocal performance on Pink Floyd’s ‘Have a Cigar’, but curious listeners who delve deeper into the man’s work will find a discography rich in ambition and variety, within which his 1971 effort Stormcock shines mostly brightly of all. Anchored by Harper’s formidable skills on an acoustic guitar (to which Kozelek’s fingerpicking style is clearly indebted) and his versatile, plaintive vocals, Stormcock is almost symphonic in its construction of densely layered, emotionally wrought folk-rock suites. ‘The Same Old Rock’ features ghostly harmonies and some stinging soloing by guest guitarist Jimmy Page, while ‘One Man Rock and Roll Band’ thoroughly lives up to its title with riffs worthy of an unplugged Led Zeppelin and intensity to match. Closer ‘Me and My Woman’ is the real highlight though, a majestic orchestral backing and one of Harper’s finest vocal performances elevating its 13 minutes to classic status.
“I liked how insanely ambitious in length and scope this thing is. I am a masochist”
Swans – Soundtracks for the Blind
Let’s get this out the way – sonically, Soundtracks for the Blind, in all its ominous, avant-garde majesty is almost nothing like Sun Kil Moon. What the two albums do share, however, is a vaulting, madman’s ambition and sense of scale very few others can match. Clocking in even longer than Common as Light at two and a half hours, Soundtracks is an emotionally punishing trip through the darkest impulses of the human psyche, encompassing almost every genre under the sun on its way through. ‘I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull’ intersperses its percussive rumble with FBI interrogation audio recordings, while twin epics ‘Helpless Child’ and ‘The Sound’ locate an uneasy power and beauty despite their deeply disturbing lyrics. To try to describe Soundtracks for the Blind is to scratch the surface at best – there may be better albums out there, but none could possibly outdo it.