Last year’s critically acclaimed Benji was arguably a career high point for Mark Kozelek. In his 25 year career as Sun Kil Moon or as a Red House Painter he’s never written an album so moving or powerful as Benji. Following such success was always going to be difficult. So how close does Univeral Themes come to matching his seminal album? Very close indeed is the answer.
Both albums have their similarities, certainly musically. Acoustic guitars move from the simplistic to the intricate while lyrics that are delivered in an almost spoken word-manner drift between speakers. However, while Benji dealt largely with death and the heart-breaking stories of Carrisa, Brett and Jim Wise to name a few, the subject matter of Universal Themes is mostly just mundane stuff Kozelek’s been up to over the last few years – described in great detail of course.
He chronicles the untimely end of a possum, sneaking an “unforgettable kiss” with Rachel Goswell from Slowdive at a Gomez gig in Madrid and performing with Ben Gibbard and Will Oldham, whom he claims is “smart as f***”. He also makes multiple references to playing himself in an Italian film set in a ski town in Switzerland. An experience he seemingly struggled with, “I feel out of place and out of my element” he sings on the excellent “Birds of Flims”.
There are some more serious moments, such as the death of an ex-girlfriend at the age of 35 and a disabled friend named Billy who was dropped while being lifted from his bed and subsequently died. One recurring character is Kozelek’s ill friend Theresa, whom he genuinely feels guilty that he’s not been there for recently. “I want to visit my friend because she’s in a lot of pain… I feel bad not going now but I got a life out here,” he sings on album standout “This Is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at a Gas Station” (yes that’s really what it’s called). Despite his image as a bit of an arsehole, Kozelek seems a genuinely caring individual.
There are doses of humour as well. When he’s turned down for a dinner date by Jane Fonda he jokes, “If only I had class like Ted Turner or Gregory Peck”. While on “Little Rascals” he recounts a visit to the doctor’s, “just back from the doctor where I weighed in at 203/And I just turned 48 baby I gotta admit it kinda concerns me” and later, “but I gotta say I love good food/And watchin’ my diet and no carbs is a f***in’ bore”
Even with uncompromising song structures, rambling lyrics that often don’t fit with the music and a running time of over 70 minutes, Universal Themes remains compelling throughout. Much like another of this year’s best albums, Courtney Barnett’s debut, Mark Kozelek excels in detailing everyday life. During “This Is My First Day…” he perfectly sums up his place in indie rock in 2015: “I just keep keepin’ busy travellin’ and playin’ and writin’ ‘til I’m f***in’ dizzy/Some people love what I do and some get f***in’ pissy/But I don’t give a f*** one day they’re all gonna miss me”. I for one love what he does and if he keeps writin’ ‘til he’s f***in’ dizzy, I’ll keep listening.
Standout Tracks: Birds of Flims, Garden of Lavender, This Is My First Day and I’m Indian and I Work at the Gas Station
On Universal Themes Mark Kozelek excels in detailing everyday life. It's an album that's up there with his career highlight, 2014's Benji.