Sun Kil Moon

Universal Themes

Written by: LF on 30/07/2015 13:35:53

The American singer-songwriter and guitarist Mark Kozelek is a productive man. Since his previous rock band Red House Painters broke up in 2001, he has released seven full-length albums through his primary recording moniker Sun Kil Moon in addition to EP's, live albums, and solo albums as well as different collaborative albums where he has worked with Jimmy LaValle of The Album Leaf among others. Just as on last year's amazing Sun Kil Moon release "Benji", Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth has provided drums and percussion on the new album "Universal Themes". It's the seventh Sun Kil Moon album overall and it continues Kozelek's more recent style of story-telling folk and indie rock, but this time around it sounds much more raw.

The songs on it are very rhythmic in general with guitars and different kinds of percussion being the most prominent parts of the sound. Mostly the songs sound delicate with pretty guitar riffs or intricate finger-play, most explicitly on the pensive "Garden of Lavender" and ethereal "Birds of Flims", leaving lots of room for Kozelek's vocals that change between being melodic or very linear, sometimes breaking over into spoken-word. However, "With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry", and also "Ali/Spinks 2" to some extent, break this style by being very loud and raw, featuring heavy distortion and yelled or wailing vocals, like Sun Kil Moon has suddenly turned to grunge influences. What all the songs strangely have in common is that they all feature a sudden change in tempo and mood, mostly occurring midway or towards the end of the song. These are small and simple instrumental interludes dominated by intricate guitar play that you barely get used to before the songs suddenly change back to their previous path. In a few songs, this works to some sort of effect but in most of them it's just a mystifying move.

Apart from all this, Kozelek is still his recognizable old self, writing songs that tell word-heavy and winding every-day stories of situations he encounters in his life through a deep and semi-philosophical perspective. But compared to the unifying heaviness of the very emotional album that "Benji" was, "Universal Themes" feels more like a random collection of associations. It's not that the subject matter isn't heavy – after all the every-day stories connect and tap into these bigger "universal themes" that the album was named after – but the stories that are told are even more winding than usual, retelling all aspects of his experiences instead of picking out just the more interesting or emotional bits. Thus the songs are generally long and this gives room for a lot of long narratives, which is part of why the album gets a little confusing from time to time as the experiences are sometimes piled on top of each other with no obvious connection instead of being explored in depth. This lets us follow Kozelek's somewhat quirky perspective on life but if finding peace or bits of inspiration in the simple things in life is not really your thing, I can't imagine you'd enjoy this album a whole lot.

First song "The Possum" is the one I repeatedly find the most interesting in all this as it does a good job of connecting its story to a larger theme while also providing some recognizable riffs and hooks along the way. Furthermore, it's one of the only songs where the sudden instrumental change feels really integrated in the song as it doesn't just serve as an interlude but actually continues to the end in the more quiet style. The change is connected to the lyrical content as well as it serves as the basis for Kozelek's more in-depth exploration of the impression that discovering a dying possum one day made on him. The beautiful and dreamy "Garden of Lavender" also makes its mark, standing out between two rougher tracks with its majestically slow tempo and delicate guitar play.

So in the end, "Universal Themes" does have a few songs that will stick with you but most of them don't make a lasting impression and aren't gripping enough to call for replays. Certainly it's an album that you have to take your time with if you want to get the most out of it. If you're already a Kozelek fan or in love with this style of music, it'll mostly be worth it as well as it's hard to point to another singer-songwriter that does music quite the same way that he does but while this album is alright, there are albums out there in his big back catalogue that would be more worthy of your exploration.

Download: The Possum, Garden of Lavender
For The Fans Of: Mark Kozelek, Red House Painters, Eels, Conor Oberst, Wilco

Release date 01.06.2015
Rough Trade/Caldo Verde Records

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