Mark Kozelek had an album last year – Benji – that was something of a breakthrough. It gained a lot of critical success and his fame was bolstered (somewhat negatively) by revealing a song called ‘War on Drugs: Suck My Cock’. His talent of songwriting has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding him. However, Universal Themes showcases the refusal to move on from his schtick of acoustic guitar, drums and expansive songs detailing minute details of his apparently lonely life. There are a few exceptions; ‘Ali/Splinks 2’ and ‘With A Sort of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry’, which is led by a distorted guitar before transitioning into a solo that Kozelek’s heroes Led Zeppelin would probably approve of. However, the majority of songs here are led by Kozelek’s acoustic guitar and his multi-tracked vocals reminiscent of Bon Iver’s famous technique.
‘The Possum’, the best track on Universal Themes is just Kozelek and his guitar, with some drums that come in to compliment the strums and the bridges which don’t include Kozelek’s baritone observation. Kozelek sings ‘I would like to die with music in my ears’ and I truly believe every word her says, partially because all of Kozelek’s broad statements are accompanied by observations to the extreme. However, I find a lot of problems after listening to Kozelek document his life for seventy minutes. Most of the stories revolve around Kozelek’s trip to Switzerland to act (his other job) and some of the aftermath. In ‘Birds of Films’ he sings ‘Filled out an application for a work visa for Japan and Australia’ and it becomes hard to distinguish where the poetic truth lies and the mundane everydayisms begin. A lot of what Kozelek says is downright shrug-worthy. He also sings ‘Fell asleep last night listening to a train / I wanna visit a friend because she’s in pain’, protesting ‘She’s a single mother of two but she don’t deserve any of it’ like a true friend to women.
The novelty factor of Sun Kil Moon’s baritone observations has quickly grown old for me as a first time listener after Benji. If anything, Universal Themes is instrumentally more lush than Benji but still remains the same platform for Kozelek’s everyday delivery. The album floats by pleasantly enough, but sometimes pleasant isn’t enough to captivate the listener and Universal Themes does not correct that. The instrumentation is spot on, from the deviation of distorted rock guitars on ‘Cry Me A River Williamsburg Tattoo Sleeve Blues’ and ‘Ali/Spinks 2’ and the shifting acoustic of ‘The Possum’.
In the recent state of Sun Kil Moon, it’s increasingly harder to separate the Mark Kozelek as an image and the Sun Kil Moon as a musician. As Kozelek sings in ‘This Is My First Day And I’m Indian And I Work At A Gas Station’, ‘Some people love what I do / And some get fucking pissy / But I don’t give a fuck one day they’re all gonna miss me’ and it’s clear to see that the Kozelek on stage is the same Kozelek on record. He’s not a nice guy, he never said he was, and just maybe we shouldn’t support that in the name of ‘art’.