Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek is one of music’s greatest tightrope acts. When he whispers, we lean in closer, hoping to catch a wisp of wisdom stemming from his multiple decades in the music world could apply to our lives. But when he raises his voice, we disperse, finally hearing the full extent of his thoughts. The former was what made 2014’s Benji so great; that album humanized the surprisingly engaging life of a semi-famous musical mainstay by dedicating itself to the universal theme of death. On his follow-up, appropriately titled Universal Themes, the careful mixture of the aforementioned balancing provides relatable themes, not experiences.
Jacobin recently ran an article comparing the conspicuous consumption habits of the 18th century European elite with their postmodern iterations found within Rich Kids of [Insert Social Media Here], writing that descendants of nobility engaged in “art, music, and food, and enjoying occasional bouts of sexual revelry and wild drunkenness”; or, in other words, a Sun Kil Moon album. Add in brazenness on both examples’ parts, and their complete picture is formed. Such brazenness is another of Kozelek’s tightropes; his post-Benji prickly antics have been met with a collective elongated sign, and Universal Themes finds an entire song dedicated to such a demeanor. As posited by Stereogum, “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” is a direct response to writer Michael Nelson’s review of his 2014 concert in the titular city. The song, adorned by the most instrumentation on the whole album, is at once an immature misstep and the perfect indicator of his conspicuous consumption. Look at how tiring being written about is, the surface says; but looking deeper, we can chalk this song up to the theme of everybody having detractors.
Being able to write about your sorrows from exclusive locations worldwide certainly lends itself to a bit of pretentious dissociation, but this removed perspective never appears on Universal Themes, a feature that is also Benji’s strongest point. On the latter album, horrible events are always witnessed from the view of his hotel rooms in foreign lands. On the former, he’s still stuck in these countries, unable to do anything but watch his closest relations fall apart around him. Stuck in Switzerland while appearing in a film (“Bird of Films”}, he reminds himself that the faces he encountered back in his native Ohio are the first “genuine smiles” he’s seen. The contrast between Ohio and his globetrotting career has always been there, but on Universal Themes, that dichotomy is one of the strongest throughout.
Ohio as the genuine, authentic, normal world stakes its claim on this album, from waiting in airport terminals to meeting with his loved ones in North Canton. Sometimes, he mentions friends that doesn’t qualify are from Ohio; he only qualifies when they’re not from the great state. But unlike the patriotic “Carry Me Ohio” of 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, the bleak realities of life permeate much deeper than a love of a certain set of geographical boundaries. His Ohio friends are sick, dying, and in poverty. Everybody knows what a Sun Kil Moon song sounds like at this point (save for the un-Benji-like electric guitars on “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry”); it’s just a matter of how the folk-rocker’s talk-singing grabs similar life experiences.
Thankfully, the most universal of themes is one that he’s perfected throughout his career: life is inevitable, life is mundane. No off-hand detail is spared, from the date nor the full title of the television show he’s watching to the back-to-back-to-back illnesses plaguing his friend (“This Is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at a Gas Station”). It’s hard to applaud the words of a man whose public persona veers towards the childish and sexist, but it’s hard to ignore the words of somebody who’s unashamed to give us his life to make ours one lived in concert with another.