Sun Kil Moon's "Universal Themes" Shows A New-Found Generosity of Spirit
From the early 1990s until 2012 or so, Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek churned out regular dispatches from a totally distinctive sonic and lyrical world. Here, songs often went longer than ten minutes, chords and sequences repeated hypnotically and evolved slowly, a recurring cast of girls left or were left in specifically-evoked locales, and the singer’s quotidian existence was detailed in a voice both beautiful and indistinct. Words and music were an impressionistic wash of sadness and occasional striking details. The poetry was to be found in the impressionistic whole as it accreted rather than - mostly - in specific lines.
But with 2012’s ‘Among the Leaves’ something changed. Song titles went from the oblique to the barbed (‘The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man’), as if Kozelek had struck up a drinking friendship with Morrissey. Lyrics were clear and poked resentful fun at the changing demographic of his audience, recounted tales of STIs contracted during on-tour one night stands, listed unremarkable events; there were middling songs that referred to themselves as middling. 2014’s ‘Benji’ moved further in that direction: family tragedies were recounted in minute detail over intricate and repetitive guitar figures, lyrics were for the most part plainspoken and front-and-centre. ‘Dogs’ was a dirty blues during which a frantic Kozelek gave the listener a startlingly frank account of his early sexual experiences.
It’s a challenging album that shares its predecessor’s autobiographical, anecdotal, plainspoken fixations, yet with a refreshingly ego-free core
The problem with the universally-acclaimed ‘Benji’, to my mind, wasn’t its honesty but a slightly wrongheaded conception of its own project. The otherwise beautiful ‘Carissa’, for instance, claimed outright to be giving its eponymous subject’s life poetry, when the real value of Kozelek’s new mode was precisely its brazen lack of poetry: the beauty came in the experiences themselves, reaching us unadorned and to a degree unmediated. ‘Dogs’ was striking for all its unpleasantness, but couldn’t resist the temptation to make a trite attempt to draw conclusions. Compounding all this was Kozelek’s new aptness to pick foul-mouthed fights with other bands (writing a song called ‘War on Drugs Suck My Cock’) and making snide in-song jokes about Nels Cline. There was a tone-deaf arrogance revealed that undermined the humanity, honesty and poignance that characterised the otherwise-brilliant work. The music on songs such as ‘I Love My Dad’ and ‘Dogs’ tended towards the MOR and by-the-numbers.
Happily, ‘Universal Themes’ mostly avoids those bum notes. It’s a challenging album that shares its predecessor’s autobiographical, anecdotal, plainspoken fixations, yet with a refreshingly ego-free core. It doesn’t feel the need to explain what it’s doing, either - its observations are left to stand or fall on their own merits, and stand they do. Even when ‘poetry’ is referred to, in ‘With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry’, it’s not Kozelek producing it; it’s just there, he says, in the street he’s observing.
It’s certainly the most imaginative record of his career in terms of production, and sounds like literally nothing else out thereIn fact, the humanity and empathy are constant. ‘The Possum’, for all its digressiveness, never tries to make any claim for its artistic achievement; its only conclusion is an observation all the more poignant for being opaque. The frenetic ‘With a Sort of Grace…’ derives much of its power from a willingness to render its words unintelligible, giving proceedings (a friend’s diagnosis with an autoimmune disease) a sense of panic and raw anger. 'This Is My First Day and I'm Indian and I Work at a Gas Station’ is a humble, endearing string of anecdotes in which Kozelek links his experience playing guitar with Deathcab For Cutie to the first-day nerves of the petrol-station clerk of title. There is little of the sense here of Kozelek needing to impose himself as a ‘poet’, few references to his own talent or sense of his own manifest destiny as a musician. In ‘Garden of Lavender’ he even finds time to reveal wearily that he only used Nels Cline in those earlier songs because it rhymed.
No record in Kozelek’s catalogue has ever sounded less than beautiful, but here there is a new sense of adventure, a new boldness that brings in sudden changes of pace, shifts in melody and time-signature, drastic changes of ambience that nonetheless feel totally organic. Kozelek has said that he learned from Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock a newfound freedom in his vocal technique, and that freedom and imagination are in constant evidence on ‘Universal Themes’. The vocals here are a striking mix of Red House Painters-style reverb and late-era Kozelek touches that include disorientating delays and echoes, a borderline-insane bark, something close to rap and a considerable amount of plain-old spoken word. It’s risky stuff, but Kozelek by now is a very accomplished hand in the studio: even the surprising, counterintuitive, potentially silly touches here begin to make total sense a few listens in and then to seem inevitable. It’s certainly the most imaginative record of his career in terms of production, and sounds like literally nothing else out there.
There’s a generosity of spirit here that will come as a relief to any long-time fans who were put off by the last couple of album’s slightly acrid notes yet who relished the spectacle of a rare elder-statesman restless and creative enough to pursue new forms and modes of expression, new and challenging honesties. The slower passages are hypnotic and moving; the rockier moments have a more visceral energy than anything Kozelek has previously put to tape. Quite how it will be received is anyone’s guess (much of it is genuinely strange), but to this reviewer it feels like the truest, fullest, most important expression yet of Kozelek’s new artistic direction.
About the author
Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.
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