If you read anything about independent music, then you’ve undoubtedly heard about Mark Kozelek and his recent antics. To describe him as “complex” is an exercise in understatement. His last album, Benji, was a masterpiece, and the only album to literally cause my eyes to well up with tears last year. But he’s also evidently something of an asshole, prone to causing all sorts of controversy with his comments, some of which are outright misogynistic. He wrote a song called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock,” after an incident at a show in North Carolina. His disparaging remarks about the band notwithstanding (I admit to having a hard time finding fault with his characterization of them as the “whitest band I’ve ever heard”), he writes incredible songs. Despite the fact that, for some, separating the artist from the art is a nigh impossible task, I submit that it must be done.
Universal Themes is a good album, typical of Kozelek’s hyper-personal style and stream of consciousness lyricism. That said, it isn’t as haunting as Benji¸and the former rawboned candor is now tinged with more self-consciousness. Indeed, songs like “Birds of Films” feel like protracted humblebrags, in which the singer-songwriter protagonist feels strange for playing himself in a foreign film. There are bits in which he describes playing with Mojave 3 and Gomez, or dinners with producers that name drop so hard there’s nearly an audible thud.
Any follow-up to Benji was bound to be disappointing, though this one seems a bit more circumscribed than the unabashed tragic freedom of its predecessor. There are a handful of deviations from his folky norm: “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry” starts out with a bucketful of feedback and meanders widely over the course of its nearly ten minute span. “Ali/Spinks 2” has a great lo-fi quality, reminiscent of the best of early Modest Mouse or Built to Spill. This serves to double the nostalgia-inducing quality of the songs on this album.
There’s always a deep and abiding longing that underpins every Kozelek track, like every song is written explicitly for the dead. There’s even the punk rock willingness to bite the hand that feeds him on tunes like “Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues.” Surely he knows that a disproportionate amount of his fan base fits neatly into that demographic, and his willingness to stick his middle finger in their collective eye commands a certain respect. Every character described in that song suffers mightily, and does so with a quiet dignity that escapes most of us and our hipster ilk. While Kozelek articulates his contempt undiplomatically, his anger may be no less justified for it.
The shortest song on Universal Themes is six minutes and forty-five seconds long, and the longest clocks in at over ten minutes. There isn’t a single hook among the eight tracks, but that’s typical of Kozelek’s oeuvre. There are fewer emotionally impactful elements than I might like, and at times the drone of his voice borders on oppressive. Still, songs like “Garden of Lavender” immediately capture the imagination with a single image, arresting despite its quotidian nature. It’s possibly the prettiest track on the album, with gorgeous guitar arrangements and some banjo strumming seven minutes in made my hair stand on end. When he sings, “I feel like I’ve lived so many lives, I can’t put it all together,” you believe him. Even though the sincerity wanes at times, Kozelek is still capable of baring his heart like few others.
Most of the reviews you may encounter of Universal Themes will be negative. They’re not entirely wrong, particularly given how cantankerous Kozelek has been of late. That said, they miss the album’s deeper merits. When he’s at his best, Kozelek is a musical George Eliot, reminding us of the fact “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been… half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” For better or worse, Kozelek tends those tombs.