Published Jun 02, 2015It's been a wild year-and-a-half for Mark Kozelek; since dropping Benji last year to instant acclaim, he's toured extensively, been in a Paolo Sorrentino film and picked a bizarre one-sided feud against neo-psych band the War on Drugs. This strange sequence of events led many to wonder what exactly was going on in Kozelek's mind, and Universal Themes provides the answer.
Ever wanted to know who Kozelek thinks is the most underrated actor? It's in here. Wonder what kind of phone he has? This is the album for you. Can't sleep without the knowledge of what Kozelek ate for Thanksgiving dinner in 1990? Then stop reading this review and put on the goddamn record.
But if you're stuck wondering why the aforementioned information is relevant, then that's a mystery left unsolved. Where Benji's myriad anecdotes and pop-culture references were tethered by the album's unflinching stare down the barrel of death's shotgun, Universal Themes never holds focus in a single direction long enough to justify anything. The lyrics — always the focal point of a Kozelek record — meander through a dizzying path of diaristic play-by-plays, thoughts and anecdotes such that the universal themes boasted by the title can be difficult to find; before it can be made obvious why one topic has been brought up, Kozelek has raced onto the next with a childlike glee.
Whether brutally taking down his detractors on "Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues" or discussing being nervous before playing with his friend Ben Gibbard on "This is My First Day and I'm Indian and I Work at a Gas Station," there is a common humanity at play when you parse the specifics, but it makes you work hard to find it.
Compositionally, Universal Themes is like a bizarro version of Sun Kil Moon's debut, Ghosts of the Great Highway; tracks range from acoustic folk to somewhat aggressive fuzz rock, but there's a looseness to Universal Themes, a feeling that Kozelek could change things up at the drop of a hat — and he occasionally does.
But despite the unorthodoxy of it all, it's compelling to hear somebody spew everything that comes into his or her mind with little to no filter. It's an exhausting, visceral look into the life of a hard-working, prolific artist. Kozelek's inability to spend time with an ailing friend clearly weighs on him, and his love of cats and his partner bring him audible glee. Though the mood can change on a dime, it does so wholeheartedly and realistically.
Its pastiche of concepts, themes and ideas seen on Kozelek's previous works mean that Universal Themes isn't a step forward, but rather a sprawling, unedited version of a Sun Kil Moon record. Though the universality of touring all over the world or shooting a film in Switzerland is never quite made apparent, Universal Themes is still overwhelmingly heart-on-sleeve, human; if it's not universal in the specifics, then it is in the way it rawly depicts experience. (Caldo Verde)