Across the eight songs on Sun Kil Moon’s seventh and Mark Kozelek’s nineteenth studio album the listener is confronted with astonishing levels of probing, personal, and meticulous autobiographical detail in song format: The food he’s eaten, the gigs he’s been to, the times he’s cried, laughed, played Scrabble, gone fishing, watched HBO, and the people he’s loved and lost. Listening to Universal Themes is like turning the pages of Kozelek’s diary. He has always been a deeply personal songwriter but it was with Sun Kil Moon’s 2012 LP Among The Leaves and last year’s Benji that he made this diaristic shift. Accompanied by stripped back acoustic instrumentation, the lyrics on Benji were plainly spoken and crushingly honest.
Universal Themes takes this anti-poetic songwriting to the next level: a collection of not so much songs, but musical reportage. In an interview last year Kozelek stated that he had “run out of metaphors.” This album is that statement come to final fruition. For example, the first track, The Possum, recounts Kozelek finding a dying possum, going to a gig by the band Godflesh, eating pizza and watching movies, then cuddling his girlfriend Caroline whilst watching HBO. There is no opaqueness to the lyrics, with only the melody, rhythm, and odd rhyme here and there to remind you that you’re listening to a song. While on Benji he often told stories about those he knew, Universal Themes, bridging the gap between absolute narcissism and crippling self-consciousness, is almost exclusively about Kozelek: his unease with playing himself in an obscure Italian film, responses to reviews of his previous albums, listening to Led Zeppelin whilst lying in the sun on his balcony. It’s songwriting like no other. Take the last lines of the last track:
Caroline came back to my apartment and we watched part three of the HBO series Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst It’s February 24th and I still feel a little high from how good everything felt last night
The observations range from the profound, such as his denial about a family member’s deteriorating health, to the comically banal, meeting a physicist and bonding over their dated flip-up phones. His stories and observations are more honest and more strangely fascinating than ever, drawing the listener in with his rich baritone drawl.
The instrumentation throughout is beautifully impressive, never imposing itself upon the paramount importance of the lyrics but without ever being lazy or boring. For the most part it’s similar to Among The Leaves and Benji. Take the stunning ten-minute Garden Of Lavender: beautifully strummed and picked layered classical guitars, simple percussion, with flourishes of electric guitar, mandolin, and banjo. However, Kozelek does make some significant developments from anything he’s tried before. The brilliantly titled With A Sort of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry is a bold garage rock song with a single distorted guitar and stripped-back drum kit. It also sees Kozelek’s most aggressive vocal performance as he explores his feeling of helplessness watching his close friend, a single mother, suffer from lupus. Another welcome surprise is Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues, a slow, rambling acoustic blues track.
This is certainly Kozelek’s most challenging album to date. If you don’t like it, start with another of his releases and work your way up. The songs are long, averaging around 9 minutes, and often explore seemingly banal topics, with choruses or memorable hooks a rarity. One question you’re likely to ask is “Why should I care about the banal details of a relatively obscure musician’s life? Why should I bother?” Fair enough. Indeed, my only complaint is that a couple of tracks, namely Little Rascals and Ali/Spinks 2, are so self-indulgently meticulous that it is hard to engage with them on an emotional level like the others. But in answer to the question, firstly, he’s a brilliant storyteller with his lyrics simply, but beautifully worded. Take the final lines of The Possum:
That old possum lost the fight His sad, black eyes: what a thing to see on a glowing Easter Sunday But that rodent was loved and he’s still thought of Church bells rang that day I remember hearing them in the afternoon just as we left He had to have heard them too
Secondly, by meticulously reflecting on his own life, Kozelek gives listeners impetus to examine their own. Through experiencing the incredibly specific details of an individual we become increasingly aware of the universal themes that all lives hold in common – loss, loneliness, food, TV, embarrassment, art, love, death – and so while we learn a lot about Kozelek, we learn the most about ourselves.