Universal Themes is the follow-up to Sun Kil Moon's 2014 album Benji, which unexpectedly became one of the most critically acclaimed albums of that year. Like that album, Universal Themes is extremely autobiographical, with songwriter Mark Kozelek spinning yarns about friends, family, his childhood, and other life experiences, with frequent references to boxing, music, films, television, and food. Lyrically, Universal Themes isn't as heavily fixated on death as Benji; instead, there are more songs like "Ben's My Friend," wherein Kozelek sings about his experiences traveling and playing shows. Opener "The Possum" does both, intertwining a story about an old dying possum with an anecdote about hanging out with Justin Broadrick before witnessing an incredible concert by his band Godflesh. "Little Rascals" and "Garden of Lavender" reference previous Kozelek songs by name, as well as fans' reactions to his lyrics, such as a heckler who asks if he really hates Nels Cline (he doesn't; his name just happened to rhyme). The album doesn't contain any references to Kozelek's notorious one-sided media feud with the War on Drugs, but it does include "Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues" (complete with text message notification sounds), which starts out from the point of view of a jaded fan who complains that Kozelek won't play his old material, before going into several grim short stories about early deaths and tortures, in order to drive home the first-world-problems message. There's also plenty of lighter, more joyous recollections, such as Kozelek's memory of receiving his first guitar, and a multitude of stories about the best times of his life spent with family and friends. Most of the album's eight songs hover around nine or ten minutes in length, and there are stretches of spoken monologue rather than singing. Musically, Kozelek plays almost all of the instruments himself, other than drums from Steve Shelley and guest appearances by bassist Alex Schwartz and keyboards by Chris Connolly on one track each. A few of the songs rock out more aggressively than any of Kozelek's previous work, and he practically barks out "With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry." As with all Sun Kil Moon albums, Kozelek produced the album himself, and his arrangements remain inventive and gorgeous; the lengthy songs are layered, multi-part suites that frequently switch tempos, drifting off into ethereal passages or graceful tarantellas before snapping back to the driving rhythm framing the story at hand. Like Benji, Universal Themes is a challenging listen, and some might view it as Kozelek's most indulgent album yet. But his brilliant musicianship and guitar playing combined with his fascinating storytelling skills ensure that his music is as poignant and life-affirming as ever, and the album is yet another success in his remarkable catalog.
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AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson