On Universal Themes, Mark Kozelek’s seventh studio album under the name Sun Kil Moon, the singer-songwriter and former Red House Painters frontman builds on the stylistic approach of the band's extraordinarily intimate 2014 album Benji. Where that album featured insular, emotional meditations on family, life, death, and memory, Kozelek has on Universal Themes set out to locate and document the simple threads of commonality that lie in everyday human experience. In the retelling of seemingly mundane events - from encountering a lame and dying possum in his backyard, to recalling what he ate for dinner last night and musing on which HBO shows he likes the most - Kozelek has reached levels of introspection and sheer subjectivisim seldom seen in songwriting before.
Musically, Universal Themes sees Kozelek linking up again with Sonic Youth drummer and Benji collaborator Steve Shelley, and the backdrops for Kozelek’s tuneless half-sung, half-spoken lyrical ramblings are frequently gorgeous. Though the record is largely of a much more experimental bent than Benji, most every song flows from time-to-time into extended moments of intimacy, with nylon string guitars and reverb-laden vocals providing reprieve from the abrasive, purposefully-messy riffs that comprise the bulk of the majority of the songs. Universal Themes is not a polished record, but the stories Kozelek recounts are not grand tales; the raw soundtrack is a fitting accompaniment to his direct and unflinching lyrics.
On With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry, Kozelek recreates a drunken karaoke atmosphere as he somewhat-incomprehensibly shouts over distorted grunge guitar riffs, and the song is a challenging listen. However, Kozelek’s lyrical subject matter retains his trademark intimacy, as he meanders from recounting painful memories surrounding his gravely ill friend Theresa (who is one of the few consistent characters featured across the span of this album), to detailed depictions of the singer’s solitary walks, encounters with dead groundhogs, and precious happy memories from his childhood.
Elsewhere on Birds of Films, singing quietly against a uniformly gorgeous backdrop, Kozelek recounts several seemingly unrelated events which occurred in Switzerland during the time he spent there while filming his parts in Paolo Sorrentino’s recent film Youth. He recalls the surreality of his time spent filming, along with his encounters with some of the people he met in Switzerland, and “Eating pasta pomodoro for the 38th time in a month/ Even if its price was 60 Swiss fuckin’ francs." Towards the end of the song, Kozelek wanders into a gym and speaks to some of the sparring boxers, and leaves us with his thoughts: “Life’s a chess game for all of us/ Hit, don’t be hit, jab and hook and feint and bob and weave/ When the fighters got back in the ring/ I thought of my own fight in life/ And it was time to be leaving.”
The song closes by detailing Kozelek’s lonely progress back home to Cleveland and his closest friends, along with the harsh reality of his friend Theresa’s illness, far away from the picturesque surrounds of Switzerland. Birds of Films is a beautiful piece of work, and the standout track on the album; Kozelek maintains a sense of running through these memories with a slightly-unfocused gaze, pensively turning them over in his mind until they make sense, bringing a sense of existential wandering into the otherwise unremarkable events.
Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues begins as a wry joke, as for the first verse Kozelek sarcastically gives a negative review of a Sun Kil Moon show from the point of view of a fan who would rather hear the songs “from 1992.” At the second verse, the song abruptly shifts into Kozelek’s perspective and darkens to pitch black; here, he recounts more of the sorts of painfully real memories which formed the backbone of Benji. Kozelek lists some of the deaths and tragedies concerning young friends which have touched him deeply over the years, before turning all his sadness and anger back on the Williamsburg crowd he parodied in the first verse: “You go quack/ Like a little rubber duck/ Like a pathetic whiny sad little child hater boy fuck/ Going on your analyst/ Little petty bitch/ Be glad you’re not another motherfucker sleeping in the ditch/ Sleeping in the streets/ Sleep in your own vomit/ Sleep in your own piss/ Sleep in a pile of pigeon or dog or rat or crack-whore shit.” The song spirals out of control, touching on paranoia, trauma, torture, and the inevitability of death. It’s a powerful, disturbing listen; a deeply pessimistic journey down the rabbit hole of Kozelek’s mind and the darkness he holds within it.
The stream-of-consciousness writing that runs rampant throughout Universal Themes can at times be disorienting. On Little Rascals, Kozelek recounts some of the happy experiences he’s had playing with his band and singing duets with Will Oldham of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Palace Brothers fame, before following his train of thought further until Kozelek finds himself in the darkness of his past; to the tragic early death of one of his girlfriends and his subsequent breakdown, to Robin Williams’ suicide, to weighing in at 203 pounds trying not to eat too many carbohydrates. It’s a dizzying deluge of information; an emotional roller coaster of a song which closes with another mournful remembrance of his girlfriend who passed away long ago, and the last line we expect Kozelek to say under the circumstances: “It’s a beautiful world.”
Things only get more overwhelming on Garden of Lavender, where Kozelek utilises the same stretched, painful falsetto that his friend Oldham used so effectively on records like the 1999 Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy classic I See a Darkness. Here, Kozelek recounts blowing kisses to kittens, buying raincoats, not really hating Nels Cline, some of the great gigs he saw in the ’90s, and above all else wanting to return to and tend his garden of lavender back home. There is barely any time for us to focus on the music; Kozelek demands our attention and then drowns us in each and every thought that flies into his mind.
One is left to wonder whether the title of Universal Themes is stated half-jokingly. After all, the songs here are almost uniformly focused on the unremarkable quotidian details of Kozelek’s life both on the road and at home; there are very few big-picture-moments, and between his accounts of petting kittens, watching True Detective, and running into Jane Fonda in a hotel lobby, the themes on this album revolve mostly around Kozelek, his friendships, his girlfriend, his life, and his thoughts.
While there is no doubt that some of the themes on the album - like life, death, friendship, and love - are universal in nature, Kozelek seems to regard even his most fleeting, trivial observations as somehow extending beyond simply the confines of his own life. "Never mind all the other verses I've written about Switzerland/ There's new things going on in my life, like my girlfriend got a new kitten/ And a friend of mine gave out my number to some crazy motherfucker/ And I got all pissed off and she said, "Who do you think you are, Mick fucking Jagger?"/ I fell asleep last night in New Orleans/ Just back from Switzerland, where like I said, I was going insane/ And I went and got oysters on the half shell and some blackened alligator," he sings on This Is My First Day and I'm Indian and I Work at a Gas Station, and it's left to us to decide for whom these details are relevant. By the end of the album, Kozelek is simply retelling events which can carry no deeper meaning to his audience at all: getting toothaches, firing bandmates, and noticing that some girls think flip phones are “really gross.”
If anything, it’s as though Kozelek has taken his journal entries jotted down in the time since Benji and turned them into songs. The instrumentals themselves are simple affairs which meander along and are only rarely allowed to take centre stage; often shifting abruptly and at times even disappearing entirely as Kozelek reads his lyrics to us like spoken word poetry.
Most of the songs here contain too many thoughts, too many stories, to actually hold our attention, and when this isn’t the case, the details Kozelek hurls our way are often so simple and seemingly mundane that they don’t feel like they represent anything universal at all. Problematically, between these random observations, the 10 minute track lengths, and overall lack of vocal melody, there doesn't seem to be a terribly large amount of replayability on the majority of an album which surely demands multiple listens over a period of time; long enough to sink in until we understand it all, long enough to see what Kozelek sees in these messages.
Only a couple of the songs - Birds of Films and Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues - feel like they can be listened to and enjoyed simply for what they are, as they contain at least some semblance of a linear narrative which a listener can hold on to, and more conventional and accessible structures to retain our attention.
Though Kozelek’s undiluted, honest lyrical style can at times recall the haunting beauty of Charles Bukowski’s best poems, the truly powerful moments on Universal Themes are mostly spread out too widely across its formidable 70 minute length, and interspersed with exceedingly simple observations, the significance of which Kozelek has perhaps overestimated. It’s hard to see the value in much of what is told to us, and yet as the melody and rhythm itself is so de-emphasised, the songs demand that we follow Kozelek word-for-word and try to keep up and keep interested.
As such, Universal Themes is a difficult album, and not as potent or rewarding as Sun Kil Moon’s best work. Here, Kozelek settles for a different kind of impact altogether, with themes and details that are decidedly not universal at all. These are songs about human experiences, musings on modern life, and most especially the very personal account of a year in the life of one man. Viewed this way, Universal Themes is a success; raw, real, and unfiltered, this album is a documentary: a portrait of the artist as a middle aged man.
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