Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes
Universal Themes. Anyone familiar with Mark Kozelek’s recent work will immediately know what to expect. Death. Unconditional family love. Random unfairness. Before you’d even pressed the play button, you’d know that you were going to hear another bunch of songs about sick relatives and the tragic passing of family members and close friends. You’d know it was to going to be tough, but you’d also know you were going to experience yet another fine album. But you’d be wrong. This is different. Better. This is one of the most outstanding albums of recent times. The universal themes remain, but they’re expressed even more personally than before. And if it’s possible, the result is all the more affecting. Sure, there are new stories of third-party tragedy and loss. But without belittling them, they’re not the most important part of the album this time. “I’m gonna tell you a little story here because well what the heck”, he tells us in almost throwaway manner on ‘Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’. Instead, more than ever, the universal can be found in the very local. The everyday. The mundane. “As I walk around the block you live on I see poetry on every inch of it”. There are plenty of examples. The dying possum under the air conditioner. The minnow bucket on a fishing trip. But there’s more to this album than a series of personal reflections. There’s a philosophy. And on ‘Garden of Lavender’ it’s expressed perhaps most clearly. “My heart is drawn to the small, out of the way things that I can’t help but to give my focus and attention and care, ’cause they shut off what hijacks my brain, and help to tune out what can cause me pain”. The songs are full of pointillistic little details to illustrate the principle. The film-set grind. The brief encounters. Across the album, we hear what hijacks Mark Kozelek’s brain. We see how he shuts it out. And in so doing, we experience it too. And as if that wasn’t enough, what’s truly amazing is how the music captures this philosophy too. The songs are consistently being chopped up. So on ‘With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry’, a classic grungy riff is suddenly broken off, only to be replaced by a fragile, haunting little melody. It’s as if he’s been drawn to small out of the way musical themes to help him tune out of what can cause him pain. It’s truly mesmerising. After all all this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Universal Themes was a miserable listening experience. But it isn’t. There’s real humour. There’s a great anecdote about bumping into Jane Fonda. There’s the admission, in answer to a heckler, that he doesn’t really hate Nels Cline. “His name just rhymed with one word or the other”. There’s also the irony of him going to see a band and complaining that they didn’t play his favourite tunes, “It’s 2012 but I like the ones from 1992”. This from the man with a catalogue going back to 1989, but whose last live album didn’t contain anything before 2010. The whole thing could have been a complete mess. But the images are beautifully knitted together across the set of songs. Details about the trip to Flims, Switzerland, the kitty cats, the visit to Cleveland, and plenty of others keep cropping up over the length of the album. Mark Kozelek’s new release is a highly personal creation. But it’s full of universal themes. Truly the wonder of life prevails.