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When bad men make great art: Sun Kil Moon’s Universal Themes

There is already a seismic rift splitting the Sun Kil Moon fan base. There are those who can separate Mark Kozelek’s musical output from his recent controversy, focusing solely on the seemingly increasing quality of his work. Conversely, the recent spate of pettiness and bad press circulating the ex-Red House Painters front man like a swarm of angry buzzards is more than enough to alienate even the most diehard Sun Kil Moon fan.

For this review, I hoped to sidestep Kozelek’s on-stage and off-record antics, focusing on the music itself. Those reading will already be well aware of his recent misogynistic tirades, journalist bashing, band hating and seemingly incontrollable arrogance.

But it’s becoming increasingly impossible to separate the artist’s music from his persona. With the diminishing news cycle, headline grabbers like Kozelek can do very little to remain out of the limelight, making it harder for critics to disregard  these factors when writing about his music.

The moment Kozelek disses someone from atop his high horse, the internet reacts appropriately. This then snowballs into headlines about the internet’s reaction to Kozelek’s actions. Next, Kozelek reacts to the internet’s reaction and finally, the internet reacts to Kozelek’s reaction in relation to the internet’s reaction to Kozelek’s actions.

It’s all very confusing and manic, sometimes way too much for the human brain to handle. Where are we supposed to sit? Are we to join the cycle, boycott the band and burn his records? Do we fight back at the press and request they cover some real news instead? In my eyes, there is little to do but sit on the sidelines and watch, disappointed and excited, as the chaos and pettiness slowly subsumes itself.

This same click-baity nonsense forever burdens Kanye West. Here, we have an artist quite clearly creatively at the top of their game, continually pushing the boundaries of genre and form in regards to pop songwriting.

However, the egotistical and at times violent actions of West and recently Kozelek feed into a culture of online hatred and quick news, spawning more attention and further feeding their ego, resulting in a circularity that is impossible to escape.

Due to the universal acclaim of Benji, the ex-Red House Painters front man has scored a new and far more widespread fan base. He spent much of 2014 in the spotlight, for reasons mostly bad, and quickly established himself as one of the most hated figures in alternative music. To call Kozelek the indie Kanye West probably wouldn’t be too far a stretch, at least as far as equal parts narcissism and music genius is concerned.

Of course, the last thing I am trying to do here is to condone, justify or excuse the consistently shitty actions of either Mark Kozelek or Kanye West. Instead, I wish to remove myself completely from the argument, and attempt to critique the music and personalities of these figures as completely separate things.

Universal Themes reflects on Kozelek’s rollercoaster 2014. He grapples with his newfound celebrity, extensive touring, guesting in a film, and spends much of the record philosophically reflecting on his seemingly meandering existence.

Kozelek’s “universal themes” concern the world he lives in, the emotions and situations he is surrounded by. It can be hard to base an entire album around the nuances of daily existence – but it works here because Kozelek has had such a fascinating life and his skills as a wordsmith far surpasses those of his peers. He is a successful rock star and a D-grade actor who is probably able to name check a celebrity for every letter of the alphabet, all the while writing a story about it using a knack for words comparable to Hunter S. Thompson or Bob Dylan.

Throughout Universal Themes, Kozelek weaves the narratives of his intense daily life into deep philosophical self-reflection, inviting the listener to voyeuristically see into the manic recesses of his psyche.

The songs and ideas schizophrenically shift from idea to idea, theme to theme. In any one song at least a handful of tonal, temporal and thematic shifts occur, giving Universal Themes a restless and wholly stream-of-consciousness feel.

On the album’s opening track “The Possum”, Kozelek ruminates on an injured animal hiding under his air conditioner, before shifting attention to the night he watched Godflesh play a show in San Francisco. The links between the pair are tenuous but Kozelek makes it work, bringing the rambling narrative full-circle by the completion of the track.

It can be hard to keep up, but Universal Themes never bores. Songwriting structural standards are disregarded as Kozelek plays wholly by his own rules. Despite this, however, there are quite a number of narrative threads running through Universal Themes to help keep the listener engaged. Throughout, Kozelek repeatedly references the aforementioned possum, performing in the film Youth, the aftermath of Benji’s success and returning home to visit friends after an extensive bout overseas.

The digressive nature of his narratives reflects the dichotomy of Kozelek’s personality perfectly, rendering Universal Themes his most overwhelmingly personal album to date. The entire record feels like it was written in a matter of days, compiled to reflect what life would’ve been like for Kozelek at the very moment each song was written.

It makes for a more rewarding yet challenging listen than Benji. While Benji was undoubtedly spectacular, a masterpiece in its own right, Universal Themes uniquely succeeds in portraying an unbelievably accurate observation of daily life – dealing with challenges, maneuvering through relationships, pensive self-reflection.

The songs themselves each stretch toward the ten-minute mark. They struggle and contort, often not without mistakes, moving through an array of passages and themes. There are moments of whispered acoustic folk, spoken word, aggressive punk, neo-classical guitar and tortured blues.

It is an overwhelming listen, an album of pure pretense and astonishing skill. That Kozelek still has so many spectacular ideas and continues to challenge himself only further proves his genius. Few folk albums are this audacious and challenging; perhaps Happy Sad, Lifted, The Madcap Laughs and particularly Last of the Great Country Gentlemen are worthy canonic comparisons.

Upon the album’s completion the listener is left feeling disgusted, entertained and exhausted. Kozelek draws our attention to the nastiness of society, himself included, reflecting on the multi-faceted nature of celebrity life and the paradoxical beauty and filth he sees everywhere. Love him or hate him, that’s part of the deal, there is truly no denying the sheer skill of this man as a songwriter.

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