Mark Kozelek doesn’t retreat; he just does whatever he feels like doing.
Last year, Mark Kozelek broke through with one of the most personal albums of his career, and one of the most successful. The singer/songwriter behind Sun Kil Moon has been performing under that and other names for over 20 years, but found a new audience with the critical success of Benji. It was an album that seemed made just for himself, but the rest of the world ended up listening. Given Kozelek’s iconoclastic nature, one would not have expected him to strike while the iron was hot, but here we are one year later listening to Universal Themes. Of course, anyone expecting to hear Benji II probably won’t find much in the newest Sun Kil Moon album; while Universal Themes follows the same slice-of-life songwriting style of the past few SKM records, Kozelek is writing from a more abstract place.
Another Benji may not have been a good idea. Kozelek is a better poet than storyteller, and his speak-singing style sells his voice short. So I wasn’t totally enthused when I first heard “The Possum,” the new album’s ten-minute opening track. Even though the song hits typical Sun Kil Moon notes, it wasn’t quite as on-the-nose as, “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same” or “Ben’s My Friend.” Instead, Kozelek uses these true life stories as a jumping off point for ruminations on mortality in a language that is far removed from the plainspoken troubadour we heard last year. Even more striking is the hard-rocking “With A Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry,” a sort of play on Kozelek’s fondness for heavy metal that breaks up the Sun Kil Moon formula a little bit. He’s still capable of producing moments of great beauty, such as the harrowing “Garden Of Lavender,” but these moments come with a different character and purpose.
When Kozelek does get literal on Universal Themes, it’s less about himself and more about the world around him. “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” is every bit as acerbic as its title would imply, but Koz’s curmudgeon act is far more enjoyable when directed at hipsters than when directed at, say, The War On Drugs. Even these rants are given in figurative terms, as if Kozelek is struggling to find some deeper meaning in his dissatisfaction with the world around him. It paints a more reflective picture of the singer-songwriter that we haven’t seen before. It’s not always clean and polished—no Mark Kozelek project ever is—but it’s unmistakably different from what he’s done in the past.
As much as Kozelek probably appreciates the exposure he’s received off of the success of Benji, he’s shown through Universal Themes that he isn’t going to let one album or project define who he is as an artist. Some might see the album as a retreat, and it’s true that Kozelek isn’t as unflinchingly honest here as he was on his past couple of records. But Mark Kozelek doesn’t retreat; he just does whatever he feels like doing.