Release Date: Jun 2, 2015
Record label: Caldo Verde Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Somewhere around 2012, Mark Kozelek stopped giving a shit about his music. Not the quality of it, but the politeness of it. Where the first half of his output as Sun Kil Moon, an extension of Red House Painters that’s now more or less a solo act, relied on somewhat vague sketches about ghosts and dissolved relationships (not to mention third-person biographies about boxers), his fifth album, Among the Leaves, connected him to his own music in a more direct way.
What are universal themes for Mark Kozelek? To listen to his eight-song follow-up to the critically adored Benji, titled Universal Themes, they are life itself. We all breathe, we all love, we have friends, we fear death, we work, we go from place to place, we remember, we get bored, we survive. Sometimes for Kozelek, life is the struggle highlighted in stories of Hemingway; whether it is a possum’s final day or a boxer dying in the ring, the greatest importance is how you live your hardest moments.
Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek is one of music’s greatest tightrope acts. When he whispers, we lean in closer, hoping to catch a wisp of wisdom stemming from his multiple decades in the music world could apply to our lives. But when he raises his voice, we disperse, finally hearing the full extent of his thoughts. The former was what made 2014’s Benji so great; that album humanized the surprisingly engaging life of a semi-famous musical mainstay by dedicating itself to the universal theme of death.
Universal Themes is the follow-up to Sun Kil Moon's 2014 album Benji, which unexpectedly became one of the most critically acclaimed albums of that year. Like that album, Universal Themes is extremely autobiographical, with songwriter Mark Kozelek spinning yarns about friends, family, his childhood, and other life experiences, with frequent references to boxing, music, films, television, and food. Lyrically, Universal Themes isn't as heavily fixated on death as Benji; instead, there are more songs like "Ben's My Friend," wherein Kozelek sings about his experiences traveling and playing shows.
Benji, from 2014, was the moment when Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon dipped a toe in the mainstream. Or at least dallied with taking his shoes off on the bank for a moment. Received as an instant classic, the former Red House Painter suddenly had a larger and more appreciative audience than at any time since the that band’s heights back in the early/mid-Nineties.
At first pass, Universal Themes feels like a winking gag of a title for a new Sun Kil Moon album. Since 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon’s chief and sometimes only player, has honed an increasingly diaristic brand of storytelling, lionizing beloved prizefighters and metal guitarists early on and more recently graduating to something more akin to color commentary of his day-to-day travels, tapping into a vein of human frailty by drudging up familial horror on last year’s stunning Benji. The new album opens with “The Possum,” a yarn about a wounded animal Kozelek encounters during a day spent with metal great Justin K.
Review Summary: I’m gonna tell you a story cos, you know, what the heck.All things considered Mark Kozelek’s a bit of a cock. Benji had some time to sink in to the general consciousness before his awkward spat with The War on Drugs, but on-stage antics dominated news of Universal Themes from the get-go. The defiance of two empty seats was enough to provoke a rant about the music press and a particular female journalist who apparently, despite appearances, totally wants to *** him.
Universal Themes. The title of Sun Kil Moon‘s latest album is, of course, a deliberate red herring. The overflowing narratives here (some of them so experimental with a concept of song form that they can barely be conceived of as ‘songs’) mostly capture moments in the life of Mark Kozelek. Perhaps that should be moments in the life of versions of Mark Kozelek, given how hard it has become to assess who Mark Kozelek really is.
It's been a wild year-and-a-half for Mark Kozelek; since dropping Benji last year to instant acclaim, he's toured extensively, been in a Paolo Sorrentino film and picked a bizarre one-sided feud against neo-psych band the War on Drugs. This strange sequence of events led many to wonder what exactly was going on in Kozelek's mind, and Universal Themes provides the answer.Ever wanted to know who Kozelek thinks is the most underrated actor? It's in here. Wonder what kind of phone he has? This is the album for you.
“I'm gonna tell you a little story because, well, what the heck,” Mark Kozelek gruffly intones on “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues,” which just about sums up his lyrical and performance style these days. Kozelek's seventh album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker may be called Universal Themes, but unlike 2010's Admiral Fell Promises (whose overarching theme was travel) and last year's Benji (death), this album's only evident lyrical through line appears to be unfettered stream of consciousness. Kozelek has always been an unguarded songwriter, but there are times on Universal Themes where it just sounds like he's rambling about the day-to-day mundanities of his life—watching HBO, hanging out with his friends, buying gas—without concerning himself with whether or not it hints at some deeper emotional truth.
“What does it say that, in 2014, one of the most provocative, boundary-pushing, and perhaps life-changing albums of the year might very well be an acoustic folk album that says exactly what it means?”– Gabriel Samach, in his 2014 review of Benji “Next Sun Kil Moon record to be just an old Xanga set to music”– E. Nagurney, in a 2015 tweet I thought, “Damn if I didn’t go and get myself stuck writing about one of those ‘talked about’ albums” — like To Pimp A Butterfly or Carrie & Lowell — except this one’s getting talked about because the artist’s commitment to saying just what they mean is losing its charm. I was watching a moth fly around the streetlamp outside the open window of Layne’s studio kitchen, and I wondered if it would be drawn to the laptop light if it got inside.
A decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon as a project embroiled in online controversy. Since Red House Painters evolved into Sun Kil Moon in the early part of the last decade, almost everything about the latter band was low-key and under the radar. Kozelek often toured alone with his nylon-string acoustic guitar, his music was generally slow and quiet, and he released a great many records that were happily received by his cult and mostly ignored otherwise.
Mark Kozelek’s last album as Sun Kil Moon, Benji, finally earned the songwriter the credit that he has long deserved for his compelling canon. Its successor may test the patience of later adopters, switching abruptly between styles and voices, extending diaristic songs past the 10-minute mark and mourning dying possums. Stick with him, though, because Universal Themes is another chapter in the larger work in which the gruff San Franciscan transplant continues to grouse about hipsters (Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues), count blessings, and ponders the cruel senselessness of the universe with intermittently startling guitar work.
Given the subject matter of singer-guitarist Mark Kozelek’s lyrics – his own experiences and reactions to them – “Universal Themes” is a bit of a misnomer for his 14th album. The mumbled splurges of Kozelek’s non-rhyming narrative come so thick and fast that it’s hard to keep up. But you can catch snatches: real-life incidents are recalled (in Little Rascals, looking after an ageing cat; in Garden of Lavender, a 1998 Gomez gig; in Ali/Spinks 2, the death of a family friend) that reveal his hang-ups and tastes.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. Universal Themes, the seventh album from Sun Kil Moon, begins the same way that the previous record, Benji, ended: with Mark Kozelek at a concert. But for Kozelek, the experiences could not be more different. In Benji's 'Ben's My Friend', he finds himself fearing how his aging makes him less sociable and interesting, as he sings, "There's a fine line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass and a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass." His discomfort becomes so strong that he leaves the concert without greeting his friend, Ben Gibbard of the Postal Service.
At the time of writing, Mark Kozelek is a man embroiled in one of those Internet controversies they have now. At a recent London show, he accused a female journalist of wanting to "fuck [him]" and "have [his] babies" on account of her having the temerity to request a face-to-face interview. This dickish side to the guy—let's not beat around the bush here, because he sure-as-fuck doesn't—puts his new album Universal Themes in a new light.
Intricately detailed and highly personalized stories and opinions have been the stock and trade of Mark Kozelek and his regular vehicle Sun Kil Moon for years. He’s never been one to shy away from digging into both the small and large details of his own life, or of sharing his truest, most unfiltered opinions with a larger audience. Sometimes that’s gotten him into trouble—like with his bewildering war on the War On Drugs last year—but it’s remained an essential element of his songwriting and a crucial part of his appeal.
Mark Kozelek has a gift for tangents. Some are incisive; some are long-winded; some are touching; some are horrifying. Some grace the liner notes of his records; others are shouted over sound bleed at summer festivals. This aptitude for riffing reached critical mass on last year’s Sun Kil Moon album, Benji.