“I’ll tell you another story here because, you know, well what the fuck about it” from the song ‘Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’aptly describes Sun Kil Moon’s newest album, Universal Themes. It’s a series of stories that many would normally not care about, but for some reason thanks to Mark Kozelek’s (who goes under Sun Kil Moon in this solo project) keen writing ability, you do care. From songs about finding a possum attacked by a cat, being apart of a film in a foreign country, to his thoughts while walking in New Orleans with his girlfriend, Kozelek makes the ordinary into something just slightly more than that.
I should probably note that yes, I haven’t checked out much of Kozelek’s previous solo material and his work whenever he fronted Red House Painters, so my perspective will definitely be different than others. However, let’s get into the album as there’s a lot to take in. Kozelek’s strength has always been in his songwriting, which ends being somewhat stronger in some cases compared to Benji. While I’m not trying to discredit Benji‘s songwriting, the subject matter on that album was a lot easier to write for as many people can easily connect to the album’s themes of love, death, family, and childhood. With Universal Themes, he digs into the mundane, writing songs about anything from finding a dying possum in his yard to making sure his garden is being taken care of.
Along with the change of subject matter, there’s a change in the instrumentation as the use of the acoustic guitar is lessened to make place for electric guitars, a change which I support as it ends up working pretty well. While the drumming on many of these songs could be better, it’s not as huge an issue as other listeners seem to have. Along with this change of subject matter, we see a change in delivery from Mark as he actually gets pretty experimental. Songs like ‘With A Sort of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry’ feature aggressive delivery and hard rock production that takes a bit getting used to as many would just laugh it off after their first listen. Once you piece together the lyrics the delivery of this tracks makes a whole lot of sense.
Again, I really want to praise the songwriting of this album as Kozelek is such a great lyricist. When he writes, he’s not trying to make sure it has some sort of technical prowess in his lyrics, he’s writing about his life. And through his view of life he makes sure he knows all the details going on. Listening to this album is like listening to an audiobook about his past year or so. It’s hard to explain but there’s just something about his delivery and the way he writes that makes just about anything interesting as many of these songs are selfish but smart enough to put the listener into his perspective. You’re really able to see the world through the eyes of Mark Kozelek.
Overall, this album feels like the deep cuts of Kozelek’s personal journal. While Benji seemed to pick apart the more melodramatic and easily accessible pages of this journal stored in his brain, Universal Themes goes a different route and picks out pages that feel more humdrum on the surface. Should I really care that this man thinks Steve Railsback is the most underrated actor in the world? Probably not, but he just has a way with words that make me really interested in how he sees life. And this album is more apt description of Mark Kozelek than Benji was, normal on the surface, but pretty interesting once you get to know him.