Album Review: Sun Kil Moon—“Universal Themes”

By James Li

Mark Kozelek has no filter. It means that he’s nasty on stage. He’s trash-talked fans in North Carolina, feuded with The War on Drugs, and most recently, harassed a journalist in London. His antics constantly make indie headlines and he’s been the subject of two handwringing thinkpieces on Pitchfork. But it also means that Kozelek, who performs as Sun Kil Moon, is vulnerable on record. There are plenty of confessional songwriters, but his unguardedly sincere approach on his 2014 album Benji — where he sings about everything from his childhood in Ohio, his late uncle and second cousin, and his favourite Led Zeppelin songs — earned him rave reviews.

These days, Kozelek doesn’t make albums so much as he makes podcasts with guitars. He rants and rambles more than he sings. His lyrics aren’t just confessional, they go right down to the most mundane detail, like what he ate for dinner or that time he watched True Detective. And while his fourteenth album is called Universal Themes, he gets awfully specific. “How the hell did I end up playing myself in an Italian film set in a ski town in Switzerland?” he sings on “Birds of Flims.” I can’t tell you the last time that’s happened to me.

While Kozelek’s past few albums focus on his voice and his Spanish guitar, Universal Themes is his most experimental album yet. Each track on the album falls between seven to ten minutes, with several movements. “Birds of Flims” and “Garden of Lavender” are the same gorgeously winding acoustic epics that we’ve come to expect from Kozelek, but there’s some divergences on Universal Themes. “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry” and “Ali/Spinks 2” are both bleary noise rock jams. (Fittingly, Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley handles the drums on Universal Themes.)

Album art for Universal Themes

Album art for Universal Themes

The lyrics on Universal Themes are still the same hyperrealistic prose as Kozelek’s past few albums, but the tales are even knottier this time around. While his stories are rambling yarns, there are still threads tying the songs together. Kozelek describes his experiences shooting a movie in the Swiss town of Flims as a framing device on “Birds of Flims” and “This is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at a Gas Station,” where he talks about his infatuation with a young Italian actress, and even meeting Jane Fonda. On other tracks, he sings about his friendships with fellow musicians, like Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.

Alright, even if the majority of Sun Kil Moon fans don’t have famous musician friends or act in Paolo Sorrentino movies, there are real, tangible, and, yes, universal themes on this album. Kozelek sings about the musicians he knows, but he goes even deeper into how music changed his life. There’s a poignant lyrical passage where he describes listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Tea for One” in bed as one of the happiest moments of his life. On another, he’s at a Godflesh concert, and it’s at this metal show where he decides that he’d like to die with music in his ears — whether it’s “the piano of Maurice Ravel or Godflesh’s guttural growls from hell.”

Universal Themes is a very morbid album too, steeped in as much death as Benji was. On “Little Rascals,” Kozelek mentions the time he and an old girlfriend drove past Robin Williams. We later learn that his girlfriend died at the age of 35 — which is when Kozelek “learns that the world’s unfair and life isn’t always right.” Two of the most ridiculously-titled tracks — “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” and “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry” — are actually the most poignant. “Cry Me a River” starts off from the perspective of a whiny Brooklyn-dwelling blogger. Kozelek fires back by singing about people he knew: a paraplegic family friend who died after being dropped, a friend who got shot fixing his truck, and a featherweight boxer who died in the ring. On “With a Sort of Grace,” Kozelek watches a friend fight lupus, where he struggles between wanting to be strong for his friend and giving himself a brief moment to pour out his emotions.

Even though Kozelek’s stories are mundane on the surface, the elegance of his music elevates them into something more. Even if you’ve never played yourself in a Paolo Sorrentino movie, you can probably relate to experiences as simple as fearing someone’s death or having your life changed by a piece of music. Few songwriters say what they feel as bluntly as Kozelek does. It means we get thoughtless stage banter from him, but thankfully, we only get beautifully empathetic lyrics on Universal Themes. (Rough Trade)

Listen: “Birds of Flims”

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