Album Review: Sun Kil Moon's 'Universal Themes'

After last year's highly acclaimed masterpiece Benji, Mark Kozelek, the mastermind behind the art-folk project Sun Kil Moon has hit a rough stretch.

Maybe as a way to distance himself from the open-wound emotional nakedness of Benji, Kozelek has been involved in a series of brush ups with the press, other bands and himself.

Days after the release of the Benji follow-up, "Universal Themes," Kozelek joked (some say berated) a female rock critic during a live show. While he did apologize, it left a sour taste in everyones mouth.

Why would the guy who wrote "I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love" do a complete 180 and verbally attack a young woman like that? Maybe it's because one truth: The man knows in his heart that he is not misogynistic, so that frees him up to joke about the topic.

The legendary comedians like Pryor, Carlin, and Hicks thrived off making the crowd uncomfortable, spewing verbiage that was not necessarily the view point they personally shared.

So hopefully that is the case with Mark Kozelek, a man so free and liberal with his choice of words, sometimes it's hard to self-edit.

The words come at an alarming rate on Universal Themes, a record so verbally detailed, reading the lyric sheet takes longer than listening to the album. Kozelek has foregone the absolute dread and mourning of familial loss of Benji for more all-encompassing survey of his psyche.

Obviously a psyche that is in it's next stage of mourning, where the person aggressively seeks a way to forget the pain.

In this case, it's the muscular but understated drumming of Sonic Youth timekeeper Steve Shelly, long and winding song-structures and in some cases loud guitars.

Let us not forget that Kozelek has been kicking around the scene since his first band Red House Painters in the early 1990s. Too slow and mellow for alternative rock and too loud for folk, Red House Painters eventually found a scene called "Slowcore" and hit pay dirt with the well-known indie imprint 4AD. Evenutally, Kozelek went on his own and dubbed the project Sun Kil Moon. Univeral Themes is, in a way, a culmination of all of the different moods Kozelek has had the ability to create. And sometimes all within the span of one song.

Opener "The Possum" finds Kozelek narrating a day in the life as he details his experiences finding a dying possum and how that event effects his night out seeing his friends band Godflesh. On "Birds Of Flims" he rides a Dylan-esque series of verses with hallucinatory details. Never using pretentious Kingsbury literary devices, Kozelek's rantings are relatable and strange at the same time.

It feels like you are listening to an old friend blow steam, albeit an old friend who now has a few screws loose.

On "With A Sort Of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry" (magnificent song title, by the way) Mark breaks out loud electric gutars, something that he has eschewed for many years.

The song is nearly punk in definition, the only non-punk element about it is that it lasts over nine minutes!

"Garden Of Lavender" is a dark, nearly evil sounding trip, something like Donovan meets The Sisters Of Mercy. Most of the songs are winding epics that stretch around the ten minute mark sometimes ending at a completely different place from where they started. The final track's title may be another reason why the internet has been up in arms, throwing Mark Kozelek to the wolves this past week.

"This Is My First Day And I'm Indian And I Work At A Gas Station" is another chronicle of a day in Mark's life, with that very sentiment overheard by Mark at a gas station. Before you get offended, Mark hears this and tries to offer the man some kind words.

The track rides a beautiful acoustic riff sounding something like Rubber Soul era Beatles. In most of these stories, Mark comes off as the good guy surrounded by questionable situations.

The album tackles a lot of things that most songwriters (certainly folk singers) would not have the audacity in touching upon. Music is usually not an art that wants an uncomfortable crowd. This would be like The Grateful Dead doing an encore where they did a song tackling the topic of abortion set to a death-metal riff. That would upset the Deadheads.

But sometimes there is something noble about saying exactly how you felt at the time even though it may upset a few listeners. Going outside of the comfort zone, if you will.

While Universal Themes does not offer the spot-on thematic unity of Benji, it surprises in other ways. Universal Themes by Sun Kil Moon gets 4 Empty Lighthouses out of 5.