“I’m gonna tell you a little story because, well, what the heck,” Mark Kozelek gruffly intones on “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues,” which just about sums up his lyrical and performance style these days. Kozelek’s seventh album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker may be called Universal Themes, but unlike 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises (whose overarching theme was travel) and last year’s Benji (death), this album’s only evident lyrical through line appears to be unfettered stream of consciousness. Kozelek has always been an unguarded songwriter, but there are times on Universal Themes where it just sounds like he’s rambling about the day-to-day mundanities of his life—watching HBO, hanging out with his friends, buying gas—without concerning himself with whether or not it hints at some deeper emotional truth. On “Garden of Lavender,” he even pauses his already free-flowing narrative to let us in on his inner monologue: “I was flying somewhere, I can’t remember/I feel like I’ve lived so many lives I can’t put it all together/Dordrecht, Holland, yeah that was it/I had a nice dinner with the concert promoter and his Korean wife, Sooyun Kim.”
This approach, a sort of melding between songwriting and personal blogging, can be a little off-putting upon first listen; coming so soon after a thoughtfully conceived, deeply affecting album like Benji, starting off Universal Themes with a fairly unremarkable recounting of a time he saw a dying possum in his yard and then went to a Godflesh show is a bit of a head-scratcher. “The Possum” does eventually come to a satisfying emotional payoff: “I want to grow old and walk the last walk/Knowing that I too gave it everything I got,” Kozelek reflects, before imagining the titular critter’s dignified death, passing on to the sound of church bells. But not every song here similarly coalesces; Kozelek veers between wry, pissed-off, and ruminative expression without ever really settling on any of those. While that means Universal Themes never reaches the same highs as Benji, it does allow the listener to become fully immersed inside Kozelek’s head, which is an alternately terrifying and hilarious place to be.
Because Kozelek needs so much space to fit all those words about his life, the eight songs here are stretched out to marathon lengths (the penultimate “Ali/Spinks 2” feels downright breezy at just under seven minutes). Sun Kil Moon isn’t exactly a jam band: The album’s arrangements are spartan, as usual, featuring Kozelek’s trusty nylon string guitar, unobtrusive percussion by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, with a smattering of banjo, distorted electric guitar, and keyboards. Moreover, Kozelek didn’t spend nearly as much time on his melodies as he did on his lyrics this time around; for the most part, he just speak-sings, at times even lapsing into spoken-word sections. So instead of atmosphere and ear candy, he fills all that running time with extreme exercises in lyrical and musical repetition. (The exception is “Gardens of Lavender,” which, despite its low-key feel, wrings some almost Zeppelin-like majesty out of its weighty tempo and lilting chord sequence.)
Indeed, every song on Universal Themes is structured in almost the exact same way, starting off with a strumming or picking pattern, building until Kozelek momentarily runs out of things to say, and then transitioning into a quiet breakdown before picking back up again. All this redundancy serves to mirror Kozelek’s circular, insular recollections about whatever’s been going on in his life recently. This style is epitomized on the album’s final and best track, “It’s My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at the Gas Station” (the latest in Kozelek’s stable of classic song titles). Over an uncharacteristically bright three-chord progression, which he thankfully modulates several times over the course of yet another lengthy running time, Kozelek recounts a series of seemingly unrelated and trivial events, keeping them listenable by the grace of his wit and straight-shooting demeanor. In doing so, he makes a callback not only to an earlier song on the album by discussing his experience filming the recent movie Youth (a topic he also goes on at some length about in the lovely, walzting “Birds of Films”), but also to his previous album.
In fact, Universal Themes ends in the same place that Benji did: at a Ben Gibbard show. But unlike that album’s “Ben’s My Friend,” Kozelek himself is part of the show this time, backing Gibbard on guitar in San Francisco after Gibbard broke his hand and couldn’t play himself. Interestingly, this show took place on February 23rd of this year, five days after Universal Themes’s release date and tracklist were announced. The fact that Kozelek went back and added to the song, and album, after they were supposed to be done underscores the fact that he was treating them like a diary with pages that are still blank and needed to be filled up.