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Review: Sun Kil Moon Continues to Sugarcoat Absolutely Nothing on ‘Universal Themes’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: June 5, 2015
Label: Caldo Verde

At first pass, Universal Themes feels like a winking gag of a title for a new Sun Kil Moon album. Since 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon’s chief and sometimes only player, has honed an increasingly diaristic brand of storytelling, lionizing beloved prizefighters and metal guitarists early on and more recently graduating to something more akin to color commentary of his day-to-day travels, tapping into a vein of human frailty by drudging up familial horror on last year’s stunning Benji. The new album opens with “The Possum,” a yarn about a wounded animal Kozelek encounters during a day spent with metal great Justin K. Broadrick and a night out at a show by Broadrick’s flagship Godflesh. The story’s details are deeply specific to Kozelek’s profession, but the pall of mortality the animal’s deathly gait casts over the night’s journey is not. Possums die. Troubadours die. Everything dies.

Sun Kil Moon’s principal gambit is that there’s something relatable in whatever heaping scoop of thoughts Kozelek lays out before us. Benji’s players had drastic stakes, and it rendered the songwriting unnervingly serious, but things appear quieter for Kozelek this year, and the magic of Universal Themes is in the telling. “Birds of Flims” recounts in great detail a series of events on and around the set of Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s just-released Youth, where Kozelek plays himself, falling in its final verses into a metaphor about life resembling a prizefight as he chats with boxers he meets wandering into a Swiss gym between shoots. “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” recalls a string of grisly, sudden deaths as a function of chastising attendees at one of Kozelek’s own shows for being hung up on creature comforts like WiFi. These tales of basking in the Swiss Alps and weathering precious Brooklyn audiences are so first person they can come off like rambling, but there’s always some profundity to be found if you’re willing to follow Kozelek’s train of thought. If you’re not, the gorgeous music underneath saves the day.

Throughout Universal Themes, Kozelek is accompanied by former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, who also sat in on the more fleshed-out numbers on Benji. Shelley’s more involved role here facilitates a greater musical breadth; folk is the resting template, but “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom and Cried” volleys between garage rock and blues, while “Ali/Spinks 2” is the kind of experimental motorik jam both musicians loved more a couple of bands ago. These are the longest songs Kozelek has written since 2008’s April, but they’re also some of the most structurally diverse. He loves a good sidelong jam, but Themes’ dynamic tense shifts are a welcome change from the slow-burning epics he’s accustomed to. What’s more, they’re a natural fit for his freewheeling, almost stream-of-consciousness narratives. The sprightly drums of “The Possum” drop out right when the party ends, and “With a Sort of Grace” caves into the blues just as Kozelek reminisces about a time “before the heaviness of life took over every fucking thing.”

These really are memoirs that Mark Kozelek is writing nowadays. They unfurl less like songs and more like porchfront reveries, stories to accompany a mint julep and a summer breeze. Kozelek’s reached an age where his calling in life is clear (“I’ll write songs in my car until the day I die/ Gonna write songs that make people laugh, cry, happy, angry/ Songs that make grown men shit their pants like little fucking babies”); he’s set in his ways and too far to care. On more than a few recent occasions, Kozelek’s been witheringly difficult, even flatly insulting to other artists, writers, and even audiences, which, for many, has understandably come to present an obstacle to the continued enjoyment of the music. But this is a record about fretting over hurt animals and hiding your private torment while caring for a sick friend.

Mark can be the guy snarkily calling Brooklyn a “town of clones” from Williamsburg, and the one quietly leaving flowers at the hotel desk on a costar’s birthday. It should go without saying that you could be a complete asshole and still make good music, a dichotomy that Sun Kil Moon’s recent trajectory has made more apparent than ever. “Some people love what I do, and some get fucking pissy / But I don’t give a fuck, one day they’re all gonna miss me,” Kozelek says flatly on closer “This Is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at a Gas Station.” There’s freedom in letting go of the urge to impress or even to be liked, in soldiering on for family, for legacy, and for seeing how it all plays out. People around Kozelek are breaking down, and he’s discovered that the principal act of earthly defiance is staying vertical, breathing and infamous. That’s as universal a theme as can be.