Sun Kil Moon - Universal Themes

by Pete Super Rating:10 Release Date:2015-06-01

Most of the reviews of Sun Kil Moon's 2014 album, Benji, concentrated on the remarkable and tragic details of Mark Kozelek's true-life narratives, as well as the deeply personal lyrics about his mother and father. All of that seemed forgotten when the prolific veteran had a 'negative' reaction to being drowned out by The War on Drugs at a festival. Even though Kozelek had a heavily tongue-in-cheek tone and took the unique approach of recording an original track to diss The War on Drugs, he was treated like some kind of old crank who was just being crabby for no good reason; an artist who's penned some of the most self-aware and meticulously detailed lyrics cast as a buffoon.

After 25 years of recording and touring non-stop, it's actually more surprising this didn't happen sooner, the circumstance with The War on Drugs not being the first time Kozelek was impacted by poor planning at a festival. Of course Kozelek can be extremely sarcastic, which tends to not register with people who are falling all over themselves to be offended. It also provides fodder for writers who never read a headline with a misleading spin that they didn't find arousing. But instead of addressing the recent events head-on, Kozelek takes a more inventive approach to letting us into his perspective.

Cut to the fourth track from Sun Kil Moon's new record Universal Themes, 'Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues': “Went to see a band tonight and they wouldn't play my favorite tunes/ It's 2012 but I like the ones from 1992.” Kozelek puts into stark relief not only what constitutes actual self-awareness, but also the difference between being an entitled brat and having a terrible and unfortunate experience. 

In the first verse he puts himself in the first person point-of-view, with lyrics culled from the kind of whiny Facebook, YouTube, or blog posts we all know and love, then proceeds in the following verses to shame that perspective. It's both scathing and hilarious.

Universal Themes is almost exclusively focused on Kozelek's recent experiences and seems to spare no detail. Do you want to know everything about his experience filming the forthcoming film Youth in Switzerland? You are in luck because the 20 minutes that make up just two of the album's tracks, 'Birds of Film' and 'This is My First Day and I'm Indian and I Work at a Gas Station', are offered to fill you in.

In a way Kozelek has doubled down on the ascending successes of Among the Leaves and Benji. Instead of the 18-song sprawl of sketches that made up Among the Leaves, or the focused narratives and unique arrangements of Benji, Kozelek presents each song as its own episode from his life. Each track seems like it comes from a tightly constructed storyboard, moving smoothly through sections that serve the narrative.

Records prior to Among the Leaves concentrated more on his finely-honed nylon finger-picking skills while still retaining the deliberate pacing and minor-key disposition that associated Red House Painters with both the Slowcore and 4AD crowds in the early 1990s. At that point, Kozelek seemed to have some kind of awakening, allowing rougher takes and less opaque lyrics to dominate his palate. 

This time, Kozelek throws out every trick in his book; ethereal falsetto backing vocals, gnarled one-chord riffs, spoken-word, delicate nylon-string picking, Crazy Horse-style jams – sometimes all in the same song. And it's all buoyed by human metronome Steve Shelley, the guy who held the chaos of Sonic Youth together for 25 years.

At 70 minutes in length, you'd think it may be a somewhat sloppy sprawl, but the arrangements and sequencing pull you along nicely. Also there's only eight songs, each one its own little movie about Kozelek's life. They each have their own unique construction but smartly connect to a feeling of unity throughout.

Alas, those waiting for some more venom directed at The War on Drugs will be disappointed. Perhaps the closest we get is in these lines from the final track; “Some people love what I do/ and some get fuckin' pissy/ but I don't give a fuck/ One day they're all gonna miss me.”  

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0 out of 5 stars