Before reading this review, there are a few things you need to know about Mark Kozelek. (1) In his personal life, he is a petty man and has an abhorrent ‘sense of humour’. Previously angled towards The War on Drugs, his latest insulting tirade, was directed towards a female journalist. This particular speech was the epitome of bad taste as he stated that she merely wanted to “f**k [him]” after she’d merely asked for an interview. (2) In his music, he is brutally honest.
Mark Kozelek’s well-publicized vendetta against The War on Drugs (including him writing a genuinely good – if not vitriol-filled – song called “War on Drugs Suck My C**k”) seemed to eclipse any merit that Sun Kil Moon gained for an acclaimed record, Benji; a crying shame. Benji managed to encapsulate exactly what Sun Kil Moon had been working towards for a long time: brilliance.
Kozelek’s application of detuned classical guitars and conversational lyrics came together to form frank, genius pieces such as “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” and “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” which aired his grievances, experiences and unique perspective in a minimalist fashion. On the whole, the album was a true highlight of 2014 and now, we’ve been given Universal Themes; the latest album from Kozelek under his Sun Kil Moon moniker.
Despite a level of abrasion that is uncommon in indie folk music being present on Benji, with his public outcries, it’s been obvious that Kozelek had held back with his perspectives on such songs as the misogyny-laden “Dogs”. While airing controversial topics, his words and style were listenable and perfectly enjoyable; this has changed some with Universal Themes. The album seems as though he has taken the acclaim from Benji as a challenge and has come back with a difficult record.
His influences have subtly changed and seem to have incorporated the likes of post-punk terrors Swans in his bag of tricks on such pieces as “With A Sort Of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom to Cry”. Kozelek layers distorted riffs to create a hefty load to take, and proceeds with his trademark angry delivery. In comparison to his classical guitar/folk-rooted norm, this is a disparate style that almost seems out of place, but what ties “Bedroom To Cry” and “Little Rascals” (another in a similar style) to the rest of Universal Themes is the distinct lyrical bravura we are exposed to.
This lyrical form is a distinctive one and pays barely any mind to rhythm or beat as Kozelek takes all the time he needs to get his point across and his clear, ‘devil-may-care’, attitude to this is displayed with the lengths of the tracks on his albums. On Universal Themes, no song is less than six minutes and forty-five seconds long and it just shows that Mark is going to say what he wants to say, how he wants to say it and in as many words as he wants it to take.
Each piece could very well form an essay, but such pieces as “Birds Of Flims” display his ability to create long-form, lyric-based pieces that don’t drag (even when reaching an extensive nine minutes and five seconds) and this can be put down to both his lyric writing and his ensconcing ability with a classical guitar. The unpretentious riffs and flair he shows keep a listener’s attention when many artists would have lost it by the five minute mark. This ability is something that has been present through much of the work done under the Sun Kil Moon alias (both when the name was that of a band and now as a solo project), and something that has seen Kozelek critically hailed.
A real highlight of the album comes in the form of “Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” (yes, Mark Kozelek has a penchant for tongue-twisting, long-form song titles) – a song that sees a folky-yet-still-Swans-ish riff that tells numerous stories of down on their luck individuals such as a guy named Billy who “was hunchbacked and his hands and feet were green” by the age of 36.
This unhappy material is a recurring theme in Sun Kil Moon’s annals as Kozelek tells the stories of the down-trodden and unfortunate in regrettable circumstances. Benji’s opening song, “Carissa” told of his second cousin who “died in a freak accident fire” and this horrific sentiment has carried through to Universal Themes – the universal theme: death and decrepit individuals.
While Universal Themes is not Benji’s equal, it is a very good album. The progression from the latter to include disparate styles and forms of writing is commendable and, while it may be difficult to listen to at times, the whole record takes admirable lyrical stances and has brilliant classical guitar abilities on show. I suggest you listen to Universal Themes, then after you’ve recovered from being immersed in harrowing less-than picturesque scenes of hard-ship, you will find that Benji is the better record and is worth more than a few listens.
The sentiment you should take from this review though, is that while Mark Kozelek is an arrogant bastard, whose real-life persona is not worth the time of day, his music is definitely worthy of attention. Sun Kil Moon’s Universal Themes is out now via Rough Trade, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hoyle