In 2014 Sun Kil Moon found their oeuvre with a record many instantly deemed classic: Benji, in which frontman Mark Kozelek put up front a lifetime of experience and poignant stories of those lost in his life, with a density of language that bordered on spoken word, and a frankness rarely seen in any medium. On Universal Themes he retreats from this boldness, his stories no longer upfront but introverted somehow – and yet the album is twice as ambitious because of it.
Novelist David Foster Wallace was obsessed with the idea of boredom, and the need for distraction. His final novel, The Pale King, was set in an IRS Station and was about exactly that. He was also an essayist, and one of his more famous speeces on the topic is titled “This is Water” and begins with this story:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?””
Wallace’s point is this: the un-thought-of, tedious realities of life are often the most telling and important, and that to understand this necessitates awareness of, and attentiveness to, dull truths that are all around us – yet often go unmentioned. On the amazing Benji Mark Kozelek stunned by frankly delivering heart-wrenching stories of those he’s lost, drawing to attention the million coincidences and dark ironies that surrounded their passing. Universal Themes strives for a similar poignancy, but does it by telling tales of nothing.
It would be pointless to quote from the stories of this album because they are normally without resolution; meandering, unfocused and plain. There are certainly topics: on ‘With A Sort Of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry’ he speaks touchingly of a dying friend he long to help but can’t, on ‘Little Rascals’ he recounts a time he passed Robin Williams on the highway, and in ‘The Possum’ a possum dies – but a dozen other things happen in each of the songs, a lot of them without consequence. On Benji coincidences and complexities were drawn together into narrative arcs but on Universal Themes the strings are snipped and we are pulled into an abstraction more akin to the blur of the real world. The words are not fascinating; the stories are plain, but Kozelek understands what Foster Wallace did: that by paying attention to moments like these we can recognise a million unnameable and unmentioned poignancies that cannot be drawn into neat platitudes. On ‘Garden of Lavender’ he mentions that he “was on a flight home from… well… it doesn’t matter”. It’s not laziness or ambivalence, its direction towards the important stuff.
It could perhaps be said that all this is to read into the record something that Sun Kil Moon couldn’t possibly have intended, like a Year 9 English teacher trying to claim that the mere use of the word ‘blue’ is indicative of a character’s melancholic biography. But the very way in which Kozelek tells these tales, removing any resolution or structure, simply presenting stories of normalcy, shows in itself that he understands some inherent potency. His rambling on this record, diverting between melody and spoken word, is hypnotic. It’s hard to pay attention to every word – but you’re not meant to. It’s almost ambient music: in that it evokes and informs in a passive, rather than active way.
It may sound like a somewhat nebulous idea and may even invite speculation as to how much talent is required to speak monotonously over an instrumental, but make no mistake – as with Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ or Vince Staples’ last LP, emotion is only wrought from a one-note performance by two things; the greater meaning implied by their frankness, and the beauteous instrumentals behind them. The guitar sounds on the album are gorgeous: be it the intricate plucking that often opens the songs or the fuzzed out interludes that regularly drift in and out of them, distant and pained like they were recovered from old magnetic tape, partially dissolved. ‘Little Rascals’ has a great rock ‘n’ roll rhythm, transcribed to acoustic guitar; and ‘The Possum’ features a spine-tingling breakdown at its resolution, following a spoken word break. It may have already been inferred in parts, but Universal Themes is a structurally fascinating record – jumping in between delicate bridges and driving riffs and shouted vocals and spoken word sections backgrounded by silence: yet without becoming a jumble. The shifts of the instrumentals come and go naturally, like waves.
Although Kozelek completely overturns his lyrical style, the change most are talking about is the one new aspect of this LP that goes over the least well. As with every folk artist ever, the next step after a successful album is of course a step towards electric guitar; and for Sun Kil Moon it’s an uneasy fit with the quiet sentimentality of Kozelek’s lyrics. Its appearance on ‘With A Sort Of Grace…’ and ‘Ali/Spinks 2’ are easily the album’s worst moments; mixed poorly with his vocals and hardly compelling.
Next to Benji though, this may seem like familiar territory for Sun Kil Moon – after all, it features bucket-loads of acoustic guitar and Mark Kozelek rambling over the top. But Universal Themesis a quiet revolution. There are no tracks here less than six minutes, most run over ten: and with sprawling and endless instrumental innovations – it might just be the one of the first prog-folk records. Don’t let its obsession with dullness and its quiet rhythms fool; this is a hugely ambitious LP and it pays off in spades. It’s biggest legacy though, as was always going to be the case, are the lyrics. Listening to it, like reading The Pale King, shifts and enriches your outlook. It finds beauty in moments of absolute regularity. The truth in this record was the same stumbled upon by Foster Wallace; “It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”” Perhaps this is why the record is called Universal Themes then, because they are not always found in stories of poignant idiosyncrasy but in small tales of everyday eventuality, for these moments are ones that every person shares, and in them we will all see something of ourselves.
Theodore J. Inscoe