When Kozelek followed Benji with Universal Themes in 2015, the critical goodwill he had earned seemed to vanish.
Original Rating: 3 out of 5
Reappraised Rating: 1.5 out of 5
There was a brief moment, sometime in the mid-2010s, where critics all seemed to think that Mark Kozelek was entering some kind of late-period renaissance. There were two things that were consistently baffling about this, in retrospect. First, there was the insistence that Benji, immediately upon release, was the greatest achievement in Mark Kozelek’s sprawling career, which seemed incredibly premature at the time. On top of that, a quickness existed in which all of the adoration directed at Sun Kil Moon just evaporated. Granted, this was in no small part due to Kozelek engaging in an impressive campaign of self-sabotage by being a massive asshole to pretty much anyone and everyone. Even so, that doesn’t guarantee complete critical rejection; critics and fans alike can and continue to go to bat for artists who are outright monsters. Yet, when Kozelek followed Benji with Universal Themes in 2015, the critical goodwill he had earned seemed to vanish.
It was in this context that I first approached Universal Themes when I reviewed it for this very site. At the time, I was still giving Kozelek the benefit of the doubt artistically; while the direction he took since the 2012 Sun Kil Moon album Among the Leaves wasn’t really to my taste, I was willing to at least try to see what other people had seen in his rambling, speak-sing free verse method of songwriting and held back from chastising Kozelek for not giving me exactly what I wanted from him. Now, though, after revisiting this album (and suffering through a few other indulgent Sun Kil Moon albums since then), I can see Universal Themes for the total dud that it is.
In his current, diaristic mode of writing, Kozelek seems to feel that he doesn’t really need anyone editing his work, and Universal Themes is where that went from being a bit of a problem to being a dire issue that threatens to consume his art. Even at its best, Koz’s rambling style could make songs stretch out for longer than they actually were, and that problem gets compounded when the songs are eight-to-10 minutes long. What’s worse, there’s not much in terms of self-examination in Kozelek’s rants on Universal Themes; more often than not, he’s just talking for the sake of talking.
This isn’t helped by the fact that, musically speaking, Universal Themes is an ungodly mess. While I still maintain that Benji was grossly overpraised in its time, it was at least arranged beautifully and in a way that gave the lyrics a sense of depth. Here, between the random time shifts of “The Possum” and the insistent, deadening drone of “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry,” it’s pretty clear that Mark Kozelek is just fucking around here. There’s no thematic cohesion in the lyrics, nor do the arrangements especially fit whichever set of free-verse rants they’re paired with. This is Sun Kil Moon as a formula, and it starts to wear especially thin once you get to the song where Mark Kozelek complains about hipsters in Williamsburg for seven goddamn minutes.
The thing is, Kozelek’s ramblings were always formulaic, even when he was getting lauded for writing them. From the beginning, it felt as if Koz was play-acting a certain kind of songwriter, taking the idea of a confessional folk singer and pushing it to ludicrous extremes of over-sharing. It’s a far cry from the measured, pristine gothic pop of Red House Painters, but he retained some of the aching beauty that characterized his early work on those first few albums he made as a diarist. Perhaps that’s what sold people on the idea that Kozelek was being sincere in his old age, but Universal Themes is the moment that he strips away the pretense of a sincere facade and exposes himself for the curmudgeonly jester that he is. Mark Kozelek, Confessional Songwriter was, at its core, always a joke; Universal Themes just made it obvious, and it turned out to be a pretty lame joke after all.