Sun Kil Moon is the project of the long-time singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek and his last album, ‘Benji’ is one of the most heartbreaking projects of 2014. Kozelek stopped caring so much about the structures of his music compared to his previous work and delivered songs that were blunt featuring overtly specific details about his life delivered with off-kilter melodies that all carried the weight of someone who had been through so much in his life. ‘Benji’ saw him break through to a wider audience with his tales of family deaths like on, ‘Carissa’ and the deaths of people he didn’t even know like the song ‘Pray For Newtown’. Kozelek’s blunt and often-upfront personality got a lot more attention as well with him gathering a strange amount of buzz when he released a song dissing The War On Drugs entitled ‘The War On Drugs Suck My Cock’.
Kozelek became much more of a well-known figure in the music community and along with it he became a lot more outspoken. A lot of these are a direct result of the constant ‘think-pieces’ by music journalists to do with him around that time and on his new album that shows because he’s a lot more confrontational. The song ‘Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’, is an ode to one of the journalists who wrote a think-piece on the way in which Kozelek is changing. Kozelek talks about how silly the whole situation is and how redundant it seems to ponder over such minuscule matters like your favourite artist changing direction when there’s so much more in life and the fact that you don’t personally know the person you’re criticising or what they’ve been through makes it that much worse. To emphasise his point he actually lists a few things from his own personal life such as the deaths of people he knows.
Although the song is very funny and does make you think, the way in which he approaches this topic is noticeably different from on his last album. ‘Universal Themes’ sees Kozelek finish what he started on ‘Benji’ and completely blow off the doors on his musical structure. Kozelek continues to deliver lines that are off-kilter in the way they’re delivered but there is a distinct lack of melody on any of the songs on this album. This isn’t a problem in itself as some of the most compelling stuff Kozelek has written is when he’s descriptive and up front about the topics at-hand. But Kozelek gets so overly descriptive on this album that it’s sometimes hard to see where he’s going with his vision and tying everything together. There’s often times on this album when it feels like Kozelek isn’t talking about anything in particular at all and is instead just singing along to his stream of conscientiousness especially as most of these songs rack up a run-time of 9 minutes and there’s very little he’s actually saying on these tracks compared to the ones on ‘Benji’. The details on ‘Benji’ added so much to the stories and they made the subject matters so much more grounded; whereas the fact that you know what Mark is having for dinner on this album may make it grounded but it doesn’t make it any more compelling.
One time you can see this formula working (after some thought) is on the opening track ‘The Possum’ which has him talking about how he saw an injured possum on its last legs before going to a Godflesh concert. He’s very descriptive of the possum and how it made him contemplate what life amounts to, but then the emotional potency of the song is cut short by this section of the song where Mark is screaming his vocals with electric guitars backing him while he describes everything detail of the Godflesh concert. The song then heads back to his acoustic instrumentation to ponder over the possum once again. Although it’s not as emotional as his previous material it works in that it pinpoints how life simply rolls on for everyone even when life is ending all around them. The song ‘Garden Of Lavender’ also works in that it documents how it feels to literally watch time pass around you. But even these moments aren’t enough to make you ponder upon life in a huge way like something like ‘I Love My Dad’ would have.
The fact that Kozelek is experimenting more with his sound on this album does make some of the narratives harder to absorb as well. Although the screamed vocals on ‘The Possum’ do serve a purpose to the narrative they do make it somewhat jarring. On the song ‘With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry’ there are constant breakdowns throughout the song with him switching between acoustic and hard electric guitars. The result is a bit rough around the edges with attempting to get attached to either side of the instrumentation difficult.
This being said, this is far from a bad album. There is no one else writing songs in the way Sun Kil Moon does right now and he does manage to slot in so much of himself into his albums that it’s hard to separate the events happening outside of the music from it. It’s just that this album is a long way from the near perfection we had on ‘Benji’. ‘Universal Themes’ is an album that does what it says on the tin because Kozelek is exploring so much both thematically and the way he’s writing his songs. This is the sound of a man wanting to push the boundaries of what got him this mild commercial success to see where it will take him.
Best Tracks: The Possum, Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues