Sun Kil Moon Universal Themes

[Caldo Verde; 2015]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: folk, confession, tangent, spoken word, anti-thinkpiece
Others: Red House Painters, Sufjan Stevens, Neil Young

“What does it say that, in 2014, one of the most provocative, boundary-pushing, and perhaps life-changing albums of the year might very well be an acoustic folk album that says exactly what it means?”
– Gabriel Samach, in his 2014 review of Benji

“Next Sun Kil Moon record to be just an old Xanga set to music”
– E. Nagurney, in a 2015 tweet

I thought, “Damn if I didn’t go and get myself stuck writing about one of those ‘talked about’ albums” — like To Pimp A Butterfly or Carrie & Lowell — except this one’s getting talked about because the artist’s commitment to saying just what they mean is losing its charm.

I was watching a moth fly around the streetlamp outside the open window of Layne’s studio kitchen, and I wondered if it would be drawn to the laptop light if it got inside. I was trying again to figure out Universal Themes, which could no longer be separated from the rippling profile of its maker, listening to “Katy Song” and “Rollercoaster” for the first time, because I never really cared about Red House Painters before. I had just finished a slow shift on the line with Danny and Eric earlier, and came over to borrow Layne’s Macbook because my laptop’s charger finally gave out that morning while watching porn instead of writing or thinking any more about Universal Themes. It was three days before my 25th birthday. It was 4 AM. When we watched High Fidelity after my shift, a movie I hadn’t seen since middle school, I was taken aback by Rob’s half-hearted rage and misogyny and stubbornness and uneven sense of humor and compulsive attention to detail — and also taken aback by the fact that I still liked him in the end.

The moth came fluttering around the lamplight again. I had to work a double in the morning, and the review was already a month late. All I had written was, “Mark Kozelek totally wants to fuck me.” I wondered if that was funny, then figured he’d never second guess himself into withholding a joke.


Kozelek follows the Benji impulse to minutely-detailed autobiography, pushing further from RHP (afaik) and April singer-songwriter lyricism toward the plainest, tangential self-narrativization. Since his fucked/funny attack on The War On Drugs and his more aggro, immediate, sexist attack on editor/writer Laura Snapes, it’s been a slow-rolling mediated backlash of headlines, thinkpieces, and thinkpieces about thinkpieces, followed by some half-justifications, an allegedly redacted Pitchfork review, and almost no apologies. Despite the goodwill earned via Benji’s “sincerity,” our collective (politically/ethically mindful) understanding of Kozelek — and by association his evermore diaristic output as Sun Kil Moon — has changed.

But the long-winded, winding content of Universal Themes — the diverging hooks and drawn choruses and (plain)spoken-word interludes and bridges to nowhere — has not changed. The album is as stuck in time as a delivered text or dead second cousin. The songs remain the same.

Kozelek’s examination of conscience on record is conditional, confessional, and beyond the anti-rational IDGAF attitude that he’s perpetuated publicly. These songs are almost anti-thinkpieces in their plodding rundown of the dying day. We’re given casual observationalism as poetics, the same way Benji used basic minutes reporting as a kind of relationality or memories as metaphors that weren’t really metaphorical. It follows that Sun Kil Moon would reduce the singing into straight speaking. Within that continuity (I think it makes sense to consider this a sequel), I don’t understand, outside the reasonable objection caused by his controversial behavior, why anyone who loved Benji would dislike this release. Except:

The freewheeling structures here are compelling as often as they feel monotonous or arbitrary. To me, it seems the whole project rests on the prettiness of the guitar and the strength of Kozelek’s melodic invention. When he does lock into groove, the songs move me and seem not to hang so critically on his uneven words. Throughout, Kozelek’s honesty is gross (congratulating himself for not trying to get with a drunk-ass set-dresser on “Birds Of Flims”) and evocative (making poetry from two different kinds of dead or dying rodents). In the album’s most transportative moments, he makes his invocation of the sublime in the mundane feel effortless, like when he half-mumbles about winding down the day watching The Jinx with Caroline. That might leave listeners, especially if you’re sick of his shit, numb or disinterested, but then, my favorite show ends with its protagonist yawning, “I’m tired.”


It was noon, and I was tired too, the way people are probably tired of an old white guy with a guitar, a girlfriend, and little to be silent about. My manager told me I didn’t have to come in until 3 PM, which was a relief after staying up all night listening to Universal Themes for probably the 13th time. It was beginning to grow on me, Kozelek’s prog-folk with a flair for chugging latter-day Neil Young/ & Crazy Horse guitar à la Greendale/Prairie Wind and the eerily pretty fingerpicking of Sufjan Stevens’s Seven Swans. It was all vaguely classical — rarely in a pop tuning — and either moved easily from one passage to the next or else dropped into untelegraphed bridges or codas. Still, the only song that ever really stuck with me was its opener. And I could see how this album would wear you down; maybe more often than not, Kozelek’s rambling couldn’t convince me that there was anything more to be discovered in his account, or at least anything worthwhile (and that “while” is around 10 minutes on several songs).

When he pulls it off, he pulls it off musically: Benji could rely more on its lyrics, but maybe I’m underestimating that album’s accessible songwriting. In the multi-tracked “laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing” that brings you out of “The Possum,” we’re carried outside the moment of the song’s writing, which seemed until then to happen almost simultaneously with its narrative focuses. Then there’s the lightly plucked coda of “With A Sort Of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry” and the beautiful flourishes and falsetto whine-singing that bridges through “Garden Of Lavender.” It seems we’re closer than ever to who Kozelek is making music for, and it seems like it’s the same person he’s telling jokes for.

I tried to separate myself from everyone’s cluttered impressions of the album, tried to remind myself that: Music, whether in the affective register of the Sincere or the Hyper(hyper)real, is made by musicians. Hyper(hyper)real musicians and Sincere musicians alike are people, saying the wrong thing. They perform within and without their music an account of self that coheres within regulatory norms, a slyly curated distillation of mediated “personality” that plays against those norms, an indistinguishably entangled mesh/mess (because there’s no way to tell, sometimes, other than how their performances make us feel). Behind the aesthetics are increasingly embarrassingly fallible artists with politics that betray how sincerity and insensitivity aren’t exclusive, and even betray their art, depending on the listener’s commitment to political correctness (which I, who wants to be politically correct, will admit requires intentional upkeep via social justice movements, The Pitch, common sense, music news cycles, etc.). Damn if I didn’t write into the systolic/diastolic flow of that cycle. I was listening to “The Possum” again and reading old reviews and news.

“I’m always a bit suspicious whenever someone tells me that an album has ‘changed’ their life. More often than not, the exact opposite is true. No matter how good, the album in question hasn’t changed a thing at all, but merely affirmed some deeply ingrained, more pleasing vision of the listener’s identity… No, if music is going to change your life, it’s more likely to happen through an album that is disagreeable or even slightly disappointing, the one you really don’t want to play again.”
– Ed Comentale, in his 2011 review of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, as cited by Samach


Kozelek will keep finding poetry in every little thing, and sometimes, scattered throughout these 80 minutes, the poetry comes close in its humdrum specificity to the intangible tics and memories that resemble common anxieties, universal themes. He might be a “fucking asshole,” but it means more to me for this review that he is a redundant, droning asshole. I also know that diaristic, confessional writing doesn’t have to be good to feel good when writing it.

Ros and I had put away 60 collective ounces of malt liquor when she read the in-progress Universal Themes review and then performed one of her own literary (master)pieces. She told me my review read a little sad, but she didn’t have anything to call me out on. I wanted to believe that it was sad because the review wasn’t entirely positive or because, y’know, ekphrasis. Should I admire Kozelek for finding a happy or at least comforting end to his meandering entry of an album? Despite the title, it’s totally sweet how “This Is My First Day And I Am Indian And I Work At A Gas Station” wraps up itself and the album. Or maybe I should be suspicious, especially of a publicly awful man like him, that his easy resolutions are relatable, even when constructed for a listener like me.

Even if I don’t give a fuck about Mark Kozelek as much as he doesn’t seem to give a fuck, Universal Themes didn’t change my life. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth its while.

Links: Sun Kil Moon - Caldo Verde

Most Read