Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes – Review by Killian Laher
MarkKozelekreturnsafterhiscriticallyacclaimedSunKilMoonalbumBenjiwithahastilyreleasedfollowupUniversalThemes. Sorry. That’s my attempt at what trying to convey what listening to the latest Sun Kil Moon album is like. Somewhere between 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises and 2012’s Among the Leaves, Kozelek’s music evolved from its melancholy, solipsistic, vague core to what it is now, still melancholy and solipsistic yet he has added directness, self-referencing, wordiness, croaked vocals and a mean streak. Yet his most recent album, Benji achieved the best reviews of his career. For others, it was a glorious failure, a meditation on death and other tragedies which have intersected with his life over some downbeat guitars which fell some way short of the best music of his career.
This time, he has changed up the formula. Here we get eight lengthy tracks packed with words and usually at least three different melodies over their long running times (the shortest is nearly seven minutes). Also he has expanded his sonic palette somewhat, perhaps due to the influence of ex-Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley.
It begins with probably its weakest track The Possum, a downbeat acoustic strum about running over a possum on the way to a Godflesh gig as his voice rises from a croak to a double tracked bawl until three and a half minutes in the music subsides, leaving a gently picked guitar, before being joined by some almost mariachi style guitar 40 seconds from the end. For those who enjoyed his more serious Admiral Fell Promises material there are a couple of gorgeous guitar pieces here. Birds of Films has a beautifully rolling guitar figure that is reminiscent of the quieter moments on April, though lyrically it is pretty oblique: ”how the hell did I end up playing myself in an Italian film set in a ski town in Switzerland”. Not exactly… relatable. What it is however is a really beautiful piece of staring-out-the-window style music, as fine a piece of music as there is in his catalogue.
A few tracks later, Garden of Lavender gives it a fair run for its money in the beauty stakes with some fine plucked guitar and a downright lovely melody about the usual Kozelek concerns like orange tabby cats looking for belly rubs, concert reporters and their Korean wives etc. The guitars are joined by banjo six and a half minutes in which if anything adds to the overall loveliness.
But there is so much more to this album. With A Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry is the opposite end of the spectrum to the aforementioned tracks. Here Kozelek absolutely roars thrillingly over, some heavy, filthy sounding guitar riffs and its actually way, way better than that sounds. Equally it’s married to insights about listening to Led Zeppelin’s Tea For One which are so obsessively detailed that they have to ring true. Later on Sonic Youth style electric workout Ali/Spinks 2 he sings about “songs that make grown men shit their pants like little fucking babies” (!) and later “watching True Detective on DVD”. I guess Mark doesn’t do Netflix?
He takes potshots at his long-term fans who don’t like his new direction on the loping acoustic grunge of Cry Me A River Williamsburg Tattoo Blues, which does feature a wonderful acoustic guitar solo reminiscent of Jerry Cantrell on Alice In Chains Unplugged. Finally we get maybe one of the longest songs here and surely the longest title This Is My First Day And I’m Indian and I Work At A Gas Station, it’s a relaxed sunny strum which might be the only thing here that even approximates Red House Painters’ material, albeit Old Ramon-era. Lyrically it references everything from John Connolly novels, the aforementioned Italian movie set in Switzerland, Michael Caine, Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, listening to Husker Du’s Candy Apple Grey, though as his girlfriend says ‘who do you think you are, Mick Jagger?’ Indeed.
Many of the tracks are overlong to the point of exhaustion and often feature gorgeous passages of music let down by Kozelek’s pretty ‘out-there’ vocals. Furthermore, many of his fans and indeed prospective fans will find it hard to keep up with the prolific rate he is putting albums out. Indeed, if investigating Mark Kozelek..Sun Kil Moon for the first time, this may not be the best place to start. Having said all of that, it’s really quite unlike anything else in his catalogue and quite addictive – eight living , breathing, heaving songs full of melody and gradually revealing layers. And the music is generally, prettier, more engaging and less predictable than that on Benji.
Track List –
1. The Possum
2. Birds of Films
3. With A Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry
4. Cry Me A River Williamsburg Tattoo Blues
5. Little Rascals
6. Garden of Lavender
7. Ali/Spinks 2
8. This Is My First Day And I’m Indian and I Work At A Gas Station