Premature Evaluation: Sun Kil Moon Universal Themes
There’s an old In Living Color sketch about Tracy Chapman, from the time that In Living Color was still on and still vital and Tracy Chapman was famous enough to be a skit-target. Chapman gets off the phone with a record-label guy, insisting that you can’t rush a Tracy Chapman song. Then she goes out to her window, looks at all the fucked-up shit her neighbors are doing, and then pretty much just narrates it while playing acoustic guitar. Between lines, she cranes her neck to see what they’re doing now. She’s not writing, and she’s barely singing. She’s just narrating things as they’re happening around her in real time. During much of Universal Themes, the new Sun Kil Moon album, it feels like Mark Kozelek is doing much the same thing. He tells long, ambling stories about evenings at home with his girlfriend or days on the set of Paolo Sorrentino’s movie Youth or playing guitar for Ben Gibbard after Gibbard broke his wrist and couldn’t play guitar. Sometimes, he’s telling those stories to lead up to talking about some quiet emotional epiphany he’s having. Sometimes he’s not. Sometimes, it practically feels like he’s namedropping. These stories he tells don’t necessarily have a beginning or an end or a greater purpose, and they don’t always interact much with the music he’s playing. He’ll tell a story, pause to play a long and fluttering guitar solo, and then tell another story. The songs are long and sprawling and expansive, most of them approaching the 10-minute mark. They feel less like songs and more like collections of individual moments. It’s an interesting approach to songwriting. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But when you’re following up Benji, one of the greatest and most devastating albums of last year, “sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t” doesn’t feel like enough. Universal Themes has breathtaking moments, but as a Benji follow-up, it comes off as a big shrug.
Kozelek was doing something similar on Benji, of course. The songs were long, with no particular structure, and Kozelek’s lyrics were conversational and pointed and off-the-cuff. He was singing about people he knows, some of them famous musicians, and he was doing it without any sense of maintaining mystique or keeping private feelings private. He was funny, just as he frequently is on Universal Themes. But if this is a difficult and risky approach, Benji is the moment where it all paid off, where everything happened exactly the way it needed to happen. Kozelek was expanding on big themes, on the inevitability of death and the ways that memories can comfort or torture us. And he was singing, not talking. Some songs would have choruses, and most of them had melodies. The darkness of the lyrics worked with the prettiness of the music, and the contrast was profound. On Universal Themes, Kozelek’s focus has changed. If he’s talking about anything beyond what he had for dinner on a particular night (seriously: he described dinners), he’s talking about the aging process, about settling into a comfortable life and feeling slightly but not unpleasantly flummoxed by the ways that the world has changed. He’s singing about the rich and content life that he’s built for himself. He doesn’t hide from sadness; he dwells on the way-too-early death of an old ex-girlfriend and on the friend suffering from lupus who he goes to visit. But he’s not consumed with darkness, singing about the terrible and unlikely examples of death and suffering he’s seen over the years, the way he did on Benji. Almost nothing he sings feels like something he has to get off his chest, and maybe that’s why he’s mostly not singing it, just going in and out of a spoken-word mutter.
There is an elephant in the room here. One of the songs on Universal Themes — the one that feels the most passionate and urgent, as it happens — appears to be a reaction to an article that ran on this very website. Our own Michael Nelson has been a Kozelek fan for more than 20 years, but he’s felt increasingly alienated by the change of musical direction from Kozelek’s Red House Painters days and by the curmudgeonly toxicity of Kozelek’s public persona, the type of things that’s led Kozelek to tell other bands to suck his dick or to call his fans fucking hillbillies. Michael went to see Kozelek play the Music Hall Of Williamsburg and didn’t enjoy the experience, and he put a whole lot of conflicted feelings into this piece. Kozelek evidently didn’t appreciate that, and that’s why we have “Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues.” On the song, Kozelek sings from his version of Michael’s perspective: “Went to see a band tonight and they wouldn’t play my favorite tunes / It’s 2012 but I like the ones from 1992,” etc. The lyrics seem like point-by-point references to, and refutations of, the feelings Michael mentioned in that piece, and when he gets done with all that, he goes on to describe a litany of horrible stories: A little kid shot to death by accident, a boxer who died just as he was hitting his prime, etc. Then Kozelek goes on to tell Michael that he shouldn’t bitch about things like Kozelek’s demeanor because he could be living out all these horrible stories. (Also, Michael has sleeve tattoos, something he didn’t mention in that piece. Maybe Kozelek was Facebook stalking Michael or something.) I can’t claim any sort of objectivity about this; Michael is my friend. (He’s pretty dumbstruck about this whole thing. I would be fucking psyched if it was me.) But here’s something that strikes me about the song. Kozelek mentioned plenty of equally awful things on Benji, but they were there to serve a point: Life is a series of tragedies suffered or tragedies just avoided, and we should be thankful for every moment that we’re alive and happy, or something like that. And maybe that’s his point on “Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues.” But it seems more likely that his point is: “So shut up.”
I get that. I do. “Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” is a song written from a position of anger and defensiveness. I don’t agree with it, but those are real feelings, feelings that don’t get expressed much in music beyond anti-hater rap jeremiads. “Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” is Kozelek’s “Hate Me Now,” the same way “Dogs” from Benji was his “Freaky Tales.” It’s not a healthy song. It’s never a good idea for musicians to read their own reviews, just like it’s not a good idea for writers to read their own comments sections. But I do it. I do it every time, and I let it get under my skin, just as Kozelek evidently has. It’s not healthy, but it’s real. To air those feelings out in song requires a rare balance of ego and forthrightness, and Kozelek has that. It’s a good thing, mostly. Kozelek is singing, without a whole lot of restraint or self-censorship, about his life. And it’s an interesting life. I do want to hear Kozelek’s story about asking Jane Fonda out to dinner and being blown off, or about sharing “one of those kisses you’ll take to your grave” with Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell backstage at a Gomez show in 1998 even though he was there with his girlfriend. Those stories are interesting, and the fact that Kozelek tells them in song, rather than in a tell-all memoir or a podcast or whatever, puts those stories in a whole different light. Kozelek trusts us to keep up with him on all this, to be interested. But that means he also trusts that we’ll be interested in the two times he’s broken teeth while biting into something. He trusts that he can lay an absolute glut of information and wordiness on us and he’ll keep our attention. He overwrites, and he doesn’t self-edit. He’s happy to use 10 words when one will do. He won’t say “We watched TV” or “We watched HBO” or even “We watched The Jinx on HBO.” He’ll say, “We watched part three of the HBO series The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst.” That’s an actual lyric — one of the last on the album, and the moment where I caught myself thinking that it was getting to be a bit too much.
Maybe Universal Themes, the album’s title, is a joke. Kozelek’s stories are so hyper-specific that they couldn’t really possibly apply to anyone else. “How the hell did I end up playing myself in an Italian film set in a ski town in Switzerland?” — this is not exactly a relatable sentiment. But the grander feelings of Universal Themes, the contentments and resentments and life-is-like-boxing musings, can resonate if you let them. Kozelek doesn’t really have anything deep to say this time, and he’s less interested in turning this stuff into music than he is into just telling these stories in between guitar solos. The album’s sound isn’t particularly lush, and it’s less based around acoustic guitar than his last two albums. He recorded it with the former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, and the drums and guitars and voice, while often overdubbed and multitracked, are all we hear for most of the album. So the songs, as long as they are, aren’t really grand gestures. They’re meditations, and sometimes petty meditations, or meditations on pettiness. All of that can make for a fascinating listen, and there’s certainly nobody else on earth making music quite like this. But it’s still no Benji. And when Kozelek came out with a work of such surpassing greatness just a year ago, it’s hard to call Universal Themes anything but a disappointment.