‘Universal Themes’ is an apt title for an album that rambles, rages and runs in curious and unexpected directions. On last year’s highly-acclaimed ‘Benji’, ‘Sun Kil Moon’ – the alias for Mark Kozelek and occasional collaborators – delved into highly personal and and emotive lyrics, and this splurge of inner monologues continues on the eight tracks here. The record’s ethos is neatly summed up by a line in ‘Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’, “I’ll tell you another story here because, you know, well, what the fuck…” – it’s an album that indulges in the art of storytelling, but revels when that tale becomes an offshoot of the first, and so on, and so forth.
His abrupt, non-rhyming and blunt lyrical style can at first be jolting, but Kozelek has a knack of combining the mundane with the sentimental to create a poignant listening experience. On opening track ‘The Possum’ he mourns the death of a possum on the side of the road, veering off into various tangents (both in mood and musically). As opening tracks go it’s ambitious, disorientating and in places, beautiful, a fitting opening to an album that consistently provides the unexpected.
Musically the album swings from brooding acoustics to ferocious garage rock and dreamy lo-fi punk – often switching just as you think you’ve got into the groove of the song. The heaviest moment of the album appears on ‘With A Sort Of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry’ – a driving and raging number that could make a great centrepiece for upcoming live sets. Fluxing between savage guitars and soft, laid-back sections, it’s a highlight of the record. The sonic variations help to break up Kozelek’s repetitive vocal delivery and as the listener, it’s exciting to see where the next twist in the road will be.
In saying that, with the shortest track still approaching seven minutes, the album can challenge at times. Repeated listens however unveil an immersive experience and it’s an album that lures you in, actively hoping that you’ll get lost within the rabbit hole. The sheer speed that Kozelek spits out his lyrics means that with each listen you’ll snatch on to another nugget of his psyche that you missed the first time. Running to one hour and ten minutes, it’s an zealous project that is continuously compelling, even with the odd stumble.
Mark Kozelek has revealed himself to be a mesmerising performer in the past few years. He’s also got the capacity to rub people up the wrong way and recent live shows have seen him shave close to the bone with his comments – especially where journalists are concerned. But while he can split opinion at times, what you could never excuse Kozelek of is taking the easy road. ‘Universal Themes’ is an album that rejects the motion of traditional song structures and constantly intrigues the listener. It lurches from lulls to thrills and if nothing else, is a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the 21st century’s most unusual rock stars.
‘Universal Themes’ is out now on Rough Trade
The full track-listing for ‘Universal Themes’ is as follows…
‘Birds of Films’
‘With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry’
‘Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’
‘Garden of Lavender’
‘This is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at a Gas Station’