Tuesday 9 June 2015

Review of 'Universal Themes' by Sun Kil Moon

I’ll tell you another story here, because you know, well, what the fuck’

48-year-old, Ohio-born, War-On-Drugs-trolling singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek (AKA Sun Kil Moon) released one of the best albums of 2014, Benji. If you don’t agree you either haven’t listened to it yet, or you’re an idiot.

What was on the surface essentially middle-aged death-obsessed ramblings revealed itself to be a masterpiece in raw storytelling that melded heartfelt emotion, brutal honesty, vivid imagery and bone-dry black humour. It was an album that was as positive as it was depressing, seemingly celebrating life’s tragedies as character-defining moments that make us who we are.

Mark Kozelek looking bright and happy

Barely a year later, we now have the tough follow-up album, Universal Themes. As the first track swiftly reveals, this is not an album about dying relatives, but rather dying possums. The focus is no longer on the effect of major past life events. Instead, Mark chooses to sing about the day-to-day trivia of the present – the HBO series he’s been watching, the gigs he’s been attending and the plight of eating pasta pomodoro for the 38th time in a month.

The tales are less dramatic. In fact, they’re quite mundane. However, this turns out to be part of Universal Themes’ charm.

Mark proves that the little things can have just as much of an impact on one’s life as major events. The dying possum becomes a metaphor for how Mark would like to live his life: ‘I want to grow old and walk the last walk, knowing that I too gave it everything I got’.

Of course not all of these day-to-details have a deeper meaning. Some are deliberately aimless, merely for comedic value – the brilliant title of the last track being an example of this: ‘This is my first day and I’m Indian and I work at a gas station’.

The motive seems to be to catch the rawness of real life – the fact that not every detail of life has to fit an overarching theme.

Another photograph of Mark Kozelek

Sonically, this rawness is also reflected. The music is arguably more detailed than on Benji (it’s not all acoustic guitars this time around and songs often have multiple progressions). However, there’s a feeling of fragility to it all. Sometimes it sounds like Mark didn’t even bother to tune the guitars up properly. Mark’s voice is also a lot more stripped back, often struggling to stay in key.

Sometimes this makes Universal Themes all the more earthy but there are moments where it doesn’t pay off. The song with ‘A Sort Of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry’ sounds like a bad garage rock song and Mark’s Barney-Gumble-yelling is simply painful to listen to. Similarly, the vocal tone on ‘Ali/Spinks 2’ feels just as awkward and ugly, taking away any beauty from the lyrics.

Overall, the best tracks are where Mark sticks to his standard vocal tone and keeps the guitars unplugged. ‘Birds of Flims’ and 'The Possum' stand out as my favourites. Here the shifting mood of the lyrics and the shifting mood of the instrumental really come together in a way I've never experienced before.