I selected Sun Kil Moon‘s Benji as my favorite album for my year-end list after 2014 drew to a close, so I figured I had a pretty good sense of what to expect when I queued up 2015‘s Universal Themes. Well, I was wrong: what you will find here is quite a bit different and will take some getting used to. Benji featured singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek‘s jarring, stream-of-consciousness vocals (which are back), but they were mostly laid over fairly sparsely arranged acoustic guitar. With Universal Themes, Kozelek opts for long tracks (the shortest is 6:45) that consist of ambitious, multi-movement suites. At first it comes off as a bit pretentious — and make no mistake, Kozelek in real life is apparently a very nasty piece of work who takes himself too seriously — but after some spins, the pieces start to snap together and the movements get more and more natural.
Also somewhat jarring is the ferocity of some tracks, like “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry,” just in terms of noise — considerable distortion from electric guitars wasn’t really a part of the picture last time. There’s also a morose mood at work throughout much of the record. While “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” is not a grunge song, per se, it’s certainly reminiscent of how that music plumbs the darker areas of the mind, and it — along with the next track, “Little Rascals,” and the one after that, “Garden of Lavender” — could pass as a distant cousin of something Alice in Chains wrote for their 1994 Jar of Flies EP. Seemingly every song stops and starts in Nirvana-like fashion, as well — the opening track, “The Possum,” for instance, will surely give you whiplash the first time you listen to it.
In the end, I prefer Benji to Universal Themes, but not by much. The former’s more focused arrangements allowed for Kozelek‘s never-ending narratives (sometimes about uncomfortable subjects) to sit front and center, while in the case of the latter, the lyrics get a bit lost in the shuffle. Even after several listens, I’m really only able to process bits and pieces of the lyrics. (I could look up the lyrics, I suppose, but I always feel like that would be cheating or something. For me, music is much more experiential than literal.) Still, this is music that is always interesting: Even though Kozelek’s vocal range is fairly limited, the instrumental contextualizations provided for the vocals are usually fairly melodic. Not to mention that texturally, the presence of classical guitars and banjos in spots provide subtle depth. Not everyone will be a fan of Kozelek’s direct style, but those that are will find Universal Themes to be Sun Kil Moon’s second straight triumph.