2014 was a good year to be Mark Kozelek. The esteemed singer-songwriter, who’s been performing under the Sun Kil Moon moniker since his old band Red House Painters disbanded, is no stranger to receiving critical acclaim with the Red House Painters & the first Sun Kil Moon record, Ghosts Of The Great Highway. However, 2014 saw the people once again wake up to Kozelek with the release of stellar album Benji. An album full of nimbly picked nylon stringed guitar and subtle accompaniment of Mark’s band throughout, the laid back and melancholic tone of the music created the perfect platform for Marks signature gravelly voice, telling stories of death, love, loss into a powerful 60 minute record.
And now, not much more than a year later, Sun Kil Moon returns with Universal Themes. Riding the wave of success brought to him by Benji, Kozelek delivers an album longer than Benji, totalling 1 hour and 10 minutes. The tracks are smaller in number but made up for in length, with the shortest of the eight tracks reaching almost seven minutes.
Universal Themes opens with The Possum, a track that was released way back in November 2014 before the album was even announced. The track is a nine minute monologue of the events the occurred in one particular day of Mark’s life, a style that will become a staple of this album. In his instantly recognisable voice, Kozelek intertwines the story of watching an injured Possum trapped under his Air Conditioner, with stories of going to see Godflesh play live and spending time with Justin Broadrick, the vocalist of Godflesh and friend of Kozeleks. The music on this track doesn’t venture far from the style found on Benji, with a simple set of guitar chords being strummed through the majority of the song, with a subtle drum beat behind him.
Universal Themes is musically a different album from Benji, however on certain tracks it is hard to not notice the similarities. For example, on the track that follows The Possum called Birds Of Flims the picking pattern of Kozeleks guitar matches that of the song Truck Driver, the third song on Benji. Also, naturally similarities arise with the music because for the most part Kozelek stays true to the nylon string guitar that was evident on Benji.
The tracks I Walked With A Sort Of Grace To The Bathroom To Cry and Ali/Spinks 2 are both songs that strongly stand out throughout the whole album, and not always in a good way. Both tracks have Kozelek playing the electric guitar instead of his normal nylon string and both adopt very different vocal styles. I Walked With A Sort Of Grace has Kozelek adopting the more aggressive style shown in the The Possum but put behind a thunderous hard rock guitar riff and steady rock beat, while Ali/Spinks 2 has a much less heavy riff than the former and it sees Kozelek remain in his traditional style of vocals while singing in a very whiny voice in the verses which can rub some the wrong way.
Throughout Universal Themes, Kozelek seems to separate songs into different sections and will just jump into those sections with very little warning which can sometimes sound awkward and jerky, it definitely took a few listens for me to get used to that.
Lyrically, Universal Themes explores many themes that aren’t too far from what Kozelek has explored previously. The main focus of this album, in my opinion anyway, appears to be death and youth. Many of the stories Kozelek tells on this album are stories of people he knew dying in odd circumstances, and there are a good few references to his own childhood, like on I Walked With A Sort Of Grace To The Bathroom To Cry he reminisces on collecting “Toads and garter snakes” and playing with a Quija Board with the friend who is the basis of the song, who appears to be sick and Kozelek appears to be caring for. The album seems to focus on Kozeleks frustration with death and growing old, using stories of his friends and families deaths in order to almost vent his own frustrations. A song that differs from this, if only slightly, is Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues which appears to be his own reaction to all the negative media hype surrounding him last year, caused by his remarks to audiences and the US rock band The War On Drugs, which brought him a lot of criticism. I think the message of this song is to point out how much a little deal Kozelek sees it as, and he compares the reaction to something trivial like a band not playing his favourite songs, as he says in the first verse, to another batch of tragic stories of people dying. I think the song was written like this to purposefully juxtapose the two situations and seemingly make light of how petty he felt the media reaction to be.
Universal Themes has the potential to lose a lot of listeners because of the lyrical style. Without the directness of the stories that Kozelek brought to Benji, on first listen he appears to focus on the very mundane details of his day throughout the whole album which can’t really excite many people. This is apparent on The Possum, where Mark at one point talks about sitting and watching HBO with his girlfriend Caroline. It really took me a few listens to get past the mundane lyrics and figure out what Kozelek was trying to say and once I had figured that out I think it was worth it, however for a lot of other listeners I don’t think they would spend the same amount of effort dissecting Kozeleks words.
Overall, I think that Universal Themes is a solid effort from Sun Kil Moon. However I feel this album was almost hastily made, in a possible attempt to keep up the hype created by Benji, or maybe not. I think this album lacks the hard hitting lyrics of Benji and therefore might lose a lot of listeners. Some may also find it hard to push passed the somewhat strange song titles like I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry or the albums closer, This is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at A Gas Station which, despite the titles being relevant to the lyrics within the song, are still unfortunately laughably bad. I still really enjoyed this album and look forward to what else has to come in the Sun Kil Moon Discography.