Review: Sun Kil Moon, Universal Themes

Universal Themes covers so much ground, it can’t help but live up to its name.
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Universal Themes covers so much ground, it can’t help but live up to its name.

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. Kozelek confronted death in the starkest and most personal of terms, recalling the lives of friends and relatives with infinitesimal detail, on a slow march towards the inevitable end. Benji struck a chord with a wider audience than Kozelek has had in some time, possibly ever. Everyone could see some part of themselves within his verbose maze.

Benji was more notable for its unique storytelling style than its arrangements. It relied on a nylon string guitar minimal enough to let Kozelek’s words stand on their own. Universal Themes taps into similar lyrical directness, with densely rendered autobiographical takes, meditations on mortality and cultural touchstones that require several skips back to untangle. It’s a familiar tactic at this point, but it’s a tactic that undeniably belongs to Kozelek.  

Less familiar is the album’s structure. Kozelek stretches his songs out to and occasionally beyond their limits. Eight songs that average nearly nine minutes in length allow him to extrapolate on his musical ideas in a way that Benji seldom afforded him. The closest analogue in his discography is April. Most of the songs consist of several parts and transition abruptly before looping back on themselves. “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry” starts off with a stormy, lo-fi garage riff before veering into a post-rock/slowcore passage reminiscent of some of Kozelek’s early work with Red House Painters. The exquisite “Birds of Films” might be the album’s most linear track, retaining its shape for nearly its entire runtime. A medieval folk riff punctuates lengthy verses about a film shoot in Switzerland — an event referenced numerous times throughout the album.

Sun Kil Moon Portrait

Whereas Benji seemed a more synchronized marriage of words and music, Universal Themes gives off the distinct impression that the music was built around the lyrics after they were put to paper, or vice versa. Kozelek ventures into freak-folk, southern rock and blues, and even noise experiments on “Ali/Spinks 2”. The way he crams extra syllables into verses give the distinct impression that one informed the other. While the results can be clunky at times (the jumbled “Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” turns into a bit of a drag), it also prevents Universal Themes from feeling like a sequel. This is a different batch of stories with different thematic threads, told from the same mercurial perspective.

Where Benji spanned decades, the stories in Universal Themes are mostly documenting events in the aftermath of Benji. Despite the personal nature of these stories, Kozelek delivers that so objectively and matter-of-fact that it strips away much of the emotionality in the lyrics. “Little Rascals” in particular is actually more poignant on paper. Singing like his bottom lip is dripping with chewing tobacco, Kozelek makes little effort to differentiate between observational humor, or, say, a mother who died before she could see her child’s first birthday. The closest he comes to singing is on of “Garden of Lavender”, and even then, passivity and melody are present in equal measure.

Universal Themes impulsively jumps between locales and ideas. It’s so far-reaching that it almost seems pointless to provide even a cursory rundown of all its storylines. Kozelek’s thoughts may appear disorganized at times, but these songs are actually quite representative of life as a whole. Kozelek is a capable documentarian of death, grief and loss, but here he also shows an ability to appreciate who he has while he still has them, and to find humor in unlikely places. There’s more life to be lived, and so it follows that there is much more to say. In this sense, these songs feel more like a series of chapters in an unfinished novel, with plenty to follow. Universal Themes covers so much ground, it can’t help but live up to its name.

B

Universal Themes is out now on MP3 and CD.