Whenever an artist creates something you really respond to on a deep personal level — let alone creates the album you like the most in a year filled with lots of likable albums — there’s an almost unspoken obligation to check out whatever that artist does next. Unfortunately, that’s more or less what the latest album from singer-songwriter/enemy-of-oversensitive-indie-rock critics, Mark Kozelek feels like — an obligation. Now, I don’t even want to get in to whatever boorish quotes Kozelek has unleashed on the blogosphere lately, since I really haven’t paid them too much mind, and I honestly think that anyone who is shocked by the idea that a creative talent like Kozelek can be a bit difficult is quite frankly an idiot who spends way too much time on social media. And I know, that probably sounds like the kind of grouchspeak that has gotten Kozelek in trouble, but none of this crap would really bother me if it didn’t feel like that difficulty hadn’t transferred so much over in to the unwieldiness of Universal Themes.
The most plainly unwieldy thing you’ll first notice on this album is the fact that basically every song is 7+ minutes long. I guess this shouldn’t be all that surprising considering one of the more transcendent songs on the previous Sun Kil Moon album, “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” breached the 10 minute mark while slowly reaching a kind of beauty and piece of mind, seemingly just as the song was unfolding. However, the songs here never really have that tenderness, and seem to just ramble on indeterminately as Kozelek ruminates on a bunch of random topics that have that great specificity that he’s capable of, it’s just that the meandering acoustic noodling behind it never raises Kozelek’s observations to the level of anything particularly affecting. It’s a reminder of why a lot of people tend to not care a ton when it comes to lyrics in songs, as even the most astutely observed lyrical passage doesn’t mean much if there isn’t a nice tune to carry its weight.
Though just because this album doesn’t really work for me as a whole, I can’t entirely say there aren’t elements here that are at least somewhat interesting to behold, if not entirely easy to enjoy. If I had to put things in cinematic terms, I would say that Universal Themes might be Mark Kozelek’s To The Wonder, assuming that Benji was his Tree Of Life. Because it has all of the specific and humanistic touches that made this earlier work such an artist gut-punch, yet what seemed so vital and fresh now seems indulgent, as you can see and feel these tendencies getting so far out of hand that they can’t help but feel tedious. Granted, what Terrence Malick was doing with To The Wonder had a hell of a lot more joy and beauty than say, the get-off-my-lawnism of “Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues”. Yet, there are moments on Universal Themes that do stick, like a passage from “Garden Lavender” where Kozelek finally sings in a more plaintive, melodic register about a sun-bathing tabby cat “looking for a belly rub”. I just wish Kozelek had taken some cues from this feline’s willingness to indulge his pleasure centers instead of becoming indie rock’s very own Grumpy Cat.
Favorite Tracks: “The Possum”, “Garden Of Lavender”, “Ali/Spinks”