Review Summary: Deftly Personal and Undeniably Boring.
Mark Kozelek's ability to express something distinctly original and unique from his experiences defines a larger portion of his better work. That specific mannerism culminated in his apex, Benji
, his strongest display yet of internal scarring and stary observations. On that record, he explored a pallet of emotions so wide its perplexing that many use the term emotional as a synonym for sad; detailing his friendship with Ben Gibbard, the death of his uncle and second-cousin in eerily similar fashion, and his first cunnilingus experiences, he crafted an identifiable self-portrait with such skill that the listener could relate to even the most minute detail.
In the interim, he went so far as to tell The War on Drugs to suck his cock, incite a barrage of poorly strung together think pieces (Meredith Graves et al), and attracted the ire of the music press as everything wrong with white guys in music. With Universal Themes
, he’s laid the unpleasant truths of his life bare for us to consider, channelling equal parts James Joyce and Berlin
-era Lou Reed. On the opening track, “The Possum”, that comes through in a poignant tale of the honourable death of the titular character, itself contrasted against the apparent catharsis Kozelek experienced at a Godflesh concert. “The Possum” is striking not only for its remarkably engaging narrative (at 9-minutes, he manages to keep his rambling constantly engaging and relatable), but for its archetypal structure, as Universal Themes
seeks for itself bizarre and fractured songwriting to back the rambling raconteur Kozelek becomes. Most noticeable is “This is My First Day and I’m an Indian and I Work at a Gas Station”, where the compelling narrative of Ben Gibbard and a foreign store clerk converge to the tune of salaciously jarring musical landscapes. Kozelek chooses to abandon much of the sparse folk that backed Benji
and replace it with Steve Shelley’s clattering drums and his own shrieking electric guitar; it makes for a challenge, even for people who became acquainted with the antiquities and nuances apparent under all that miserable dirge on his previous works. Regardless, devote time to it and you will be rewarded, as there’s more humour under “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues” ('Went to see a band tonight/And they wouldn't play my favorite tunes/It's 2012 but I like the ones from 1992
') than any other folk musician can attest to.
is profound in how it takes allegories that are deftly personal, undeniably boring, and filled with in-jokes, and make them not only relatable but a pleasant 71-minute listen. Kozelek may take issue with everyone and everything for the sake of a wind-up, but his unrivalled ability to slice open his mind and let the observations spill out make for better self-help than most musicians’ could ever muster. Of course, most musicians aren’t as fearless or transgressive as Mark Kozelek; Universal Themes
is business as usual in the best possible manner.