Album Review: Sun Kil Moon, ‘Universal Themes’
In all likelihood, you've never made a mental connection between saving a trapped possum and the experience of going to see industrial metal pioneers Godflesh in concert, but that connection is now enshrined forever on "Possum," the opening cut from Sun Kil Moon's seventh studio album, Universal Themes.
As Sun Kil Moon evolved from a group-oriented extension of San Francisco quartet Red House Painters to a solo vehicle for singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, Kozelek was never shy about referencing other musical acts out of context. What's Next to the Moon, his 2001 solo debut (under his own name), famously consisted entirely of Bon Scott-era AC/DC covers.
By last year's Sun Kil Moon album Benji, though, Kozelek had started to delve into a stream-of-consciousness method with his lyrics. On Universal Themes, he goes on even more lyrical tangents than last time and sounds tantalizingly close to incoherent, the folk-rock troubadour equivalent of an outsider artist like the late Wesley Willis. But Kozelek's rambling, seemingly random train of thought belies his seasoned instincts as a songwriter, not to mention the poignance he achieves by cataloguing what appear to be unrelated details from his day-to-day experiences.
With only one tune on Universal Themes clocking in at under seven minutes, Kozelek gives himself plenty of time to cram as many observations as he likes into his verses. But, as amusing as his obscure pop-culture references can be -- surely Godflesh/Jesu bandleader Justin Broadrick is smiling over his inclusion in "Possum" -- it's what Kozelek was feeling when he was living these stories that ultimately gives the music its heartbeat. With little more than Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's percussion to work with, Kozelek nevertheless paints rich, insightful portraits that never wear out their welcome.
That's because, as Kozelek grows older and more seasoned, he's pulling off a rather crafty sleight of hand: Where experienced songwriters typically learn to say more with less, Kozelek is saying more with more.