New album from Mark Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon project. Universal Themes contains the familiar Kozelek sound and approach (forward-strolling rock and lyrics on whatever is on Kozelek’s mind that day), but this time with help from Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. On Rough Trade with a desolate phone-box image on the sleeve.
7/10 Clinton Staff review, 28 May 2015
My reviewing colleague Robin and I have many differences. For one, he’s about 12 years old and I’m about 60. But we have both been thrown together in our bafflement at the preposterous amount of praise given to Sun Kil Moon’s ‘Benji’ album. A record of beautiful music matched to woe-is-me-I’m-so-sad-about-my-dad lyricism that smacks of the writer looking down upon his audience from a lofty perch rather than trying to engage with them. The album reached a nadir with the closer ‘My Friend Ben’ about his friendship with the singer out of Death Cab For Cutie and the lyric “we ate at Perry’s and I ordered blue crab cakes”. Frankly Mark - I’m not interested. Nor am I interested in your stupid stage-managed “spat” with War On Drugs.
So, basically, me and this artist - who I have adored for so long, worshipping albums such as ‘April’ and ‘Admiral Fell Promises’ - have fallen out. Big style….and, weirdly, at the same time as everyone starts liking him. Maybe Kozelek himself knows that ‘Benji' was too much about him and has titled his new album ‘Universal Themes’? Let’s see.
Opener ‘The Possum’ is perkier than anything on ‘Benji’, with some swiftly strummed guitars and clicky percussion. The lyric recalls a phone call from Godflesh frontman Justin Broadrick and Kozelek’s subsequent appearance at one of their concerts - we’ve all been there, right? The track breaks down halfway through, however, into a gorgeous coda that recalls the wonderful ‘Admiral Fell Promises’ album. ‘Birds of Film’ is back to the Kozelek of old. An absolutely gorgeous melody, his voice less wracked than it has been on recent records, and the chorus slips in with the most beautiful celestial sounds drifting about in the background. The lyrics concern Kozelek’s appearance on a movie set and all the great things he does for people. WHAT A NICE MAN. He does go on though. At one point he's just relaying conversations he's had with other people...like old ladies on the bus do.
This is a much more varied effort than ‘Benji’. ‘With A Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry’ is a pulverising, quasi-metal effort which showcases Kozelek’s love for ‘70s metal - it's pretty awful actually - while ‘Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’ is a comical effort concerning a fan's take on a disappointing concert. The album has a ragged, bluesy feel to many of the tracks and I feel that Kozelek is marrying his narrative splurges to the music better than he did on ‘Benji’. For example, ‘Garden of Lavender’ recalls the sprawling acoustics of ‘April’: it goes on pretty much forever with a heartbreaking chorus and an at times completely absurd narrative - Kozelek has a nice dinner, plays a gig, falls asleep, buys a coat.
Like many musicians before him, he has fallen into the trap of singing about music and life on the road. It’s tedious too often, and I would never want to be trapped in a lift with him, but then a song will spiral into some gorgeously intertwining guitars and again the thought strikes me that with music this brilliant, I can almost forgive him anything. Listen to the album as a whole in one sitting, though, and you may never want to hear his voice again.
It's fair to conclude that by the time final track rolls round you start to suspect that he's nothing but a uniquely talented, self obsessed bore.
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- Universal Themes by Sun Kil Moon
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