There he sits, somewhat blankly staring off into the ether, letting his eyes unfocus as the text of an email becomes blurry. Beside him sit a stack of unopened envelopes—letters, all of them, from the return address of “I. Cohen.” They used to come weekly; now, less so. Maybe once or twice a month. Sometimes they smell like cologne. A few of them had glitter inside.
The bed behind him is unmade. The covers are disheveled. Above his bed is a large framed poster with the cover art to Benji, paired up with the 9.2 review it received from Pitchfork. From behind the bedroom door, he hears the faucet running and lots of exasperated, disappointed sighing.
The artist lets his eyes focus again and notices a new email. It’s from his bank—he’s received another deposit from 4AD Records for the Red House Painters vinyl reissues. “Suckers,” he thinks, laughing to himself a little at how quickly the first edition sold out. “Those fucking hillbillies and their western shirts; those lonely assholes with their backpacks. They’ll fucking buy anything.”
“I write the songs that make them shit their pants,” he cackles.
The bathroom door swings open and tonight’s failed conquest stands in the doorway. “Are you even going to call me a cab?” she asks, angrily. The artist sighs quietly. She was cute, he thought, from out in the crowd, as he stood on stage, absolutely killing it, as he is known to do every night. But he saw her flaws once he got her back home. Her elbows were too pointy. He tried; he really did. But the artist could not achieve orgasm.
Without looking back at her, he says, “You have a phone. Call one for yourself.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she snaps at the artist. “You couldn’t even finish and you can’t even call me a cab ride home?”
“Baby it’s like I said in the song I played tonight—When I fuck too hard, I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack,” he responds coolly.
“You’re pathetic, you know that, right? A washed up piece of shit,” she says as she storms out, slamming the front door behind her. The force of the door slamming is enough to knock the Benji poster right off of the wall and it falls to the floor, the glass shattering into large, jagged pieces.
Fuck, the artist thinks. He’s about to resign himself to this being just another night in his continually mediocre existence, but then stops, and writes down the phrase “Broken Glass Blue Balls Blues” on a scrap of paper at his desk. “Yeah,” he says out loud. “That’s the ticket.”
The artist kisses his fingers, picks up one of the 15 acoustic, nylon-string guitars he has placed around his home, and he begins to play.
I said this in November, when I wrote up Mark Kozelek’s Christmas album, and I’ll say it again here—for better or for worse, 2014 was the year of Mark Kozelek.
It started with the nearly across the board critical lauding of Benji, released in February under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, the band he had formed slightly a decade prior, following the dissolution of the Red House Painters, the band he fronted throughout the 90s.
Benji served as a continuation in this new and surprisingly prolific point in his career. Once rather reclusive, beginning with 2012’s Among The Leaves, Kozelek has released a steady stream of music—either as a solo artist, with other collaborators, or with Sun Kil Moon. Some fans would rejoice when an artist they like has such an output in such a short amount of time.
However, this is not the case.
Once an evocative, mysterious, and melancholy singer/songwriter, Mark Kozelek began, and still continues to, walk this strange line between taking himself too seriously, and not taking himself seriously at all.
Following the release of Benji, then came the antics; long known amongst his fans and internet communities, his onstage persona became headline fodder for mainstream music websites—he called an entire crowd of festival goers “fucking hillbillies,” then later, tried to ignite Biggie vs. Tupac 2.0 with the band The War on Drugs, going so far as to record a diss track called “War on Drugs, Suck My Cock.”
And now we’ve arrived at Kozelek’s latest, Universal Themes, a self-indulgent record comprised of eight songs, the shortest clocking in at nearly seven minutes; the longest, over 10. For those who may have been hoping for a reprieve from the Kozelek we’ve been treated to over the course of the last three years, keep hoping—this is more of the same, if not worse and more unlistenable, than the material found on Benji.
The problem with Universal Themes is the same problem that I’ve had for a long time with Kozelek—and that problem is that, at some point, he just gave up on writing songs. He gave up on the ambiguity of the Red House Painters and the haunted imagery from April. Instead, he just sings what amounts to journal entries about what he did each day. In some cases, he doesn’t even sing at all now. He just talks. He just talks about what is happening to him, or about what kind of day he’s had, while some music plays behind him. My assessment that Kozelek is the “indie rock Randy Newman” is not that far off base—he continues to play the role of the self-aware curmudgeon, just singin’ about what he sees.
Even when you think a song may be tolerable, you quickly realize that it’s not—such is the case with the album’s second track, “Birds of Film.” It’s great to hear Sonic Youth’s drummer Steve Shelley behind the kit, and I’ll even forgive Kozelek’s penchant for finger plucking the acoustic guitar. Musically, (like a number of songs on this record) this song is okay. But then the lyrics start, and you realize quickly this is just another song about his life—in this case, he’s “playing himself in an Italian film set in Switzerland”—an event he references again later on at the end of the record.
This goes on for nine minutes.
The next track, the hilariously titled “With a Sort of Grace, I Walked to The Bathroom to Cry,” finds Kozelek plugging in the electric guitar for once, strumming a distorted, Crazy Horse-esq riff that he was known to tap into with the early days of Sun Kil Moon.
Again, he has to ruin a perfectly good instrument track by opening his mouth—in this case, yelping out of key, with his vocals double tracked so you get twice the Kozelek, yelling at you about some dumb bullshit that doesn’t matter, an effect he continues to go back to throughout the album.
There is a minor reprieve within the final moments of “With a Sort of Grace,I Walked to The Bathroom to Cry” where the yelping stops, and the song slows down. But, again, Kozelek’s voice has been ravaged by time. He’s no longer trying to actually sing, and it’s no longer buried under all the reverb in the world as it once was. His voice is very dry and very present. It sounds jowly, and sometimes, it sounds like he’s got a mouth full of hard candy.
Thematically, Benji was mostly about how much of a pussy hound Kozelek was in his younger days, and also about his friendship with Ben Gibbard, and about how in rural Ohio, it’s easy to die via aerosol can explosion.
Universal Themes reveals that Kozelek’s tail chasing days may be over, as he makes constant references to his girlfriend Caroline. He also talks about his love of the band Godflesh as well as his affinity for cats, as well as a dying possum’s final moments of life, his lavender garden, his shameless name-dropping famous friends, and the fact that he still has a flip phone.
It’s also on Universal Themes that Kozelek becomes the most self-aware he has been up to this point—directly referencing those who bemoan his on stage persona with the mouthful of a track “Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues,” where he attacks fans who complain about how he doesn’t play Red House Painters songs live, how fans can’t take photos on their phones during his shows, how he makes fun of guys who wear tennis shoes, and how his live shows always tend to run a little long.
To all those people, he has nothing to say but a gigantic, seven minute “fuck you.”
Later, on “Ali/Spinks 2,” he barks he’s going to write songs that make “people laugh and cry; happy, angry songs that make grown men shit their pants like little fucking babies.”
Musically, Universal Themes finds Kozelek and his assembled group of players at their loosest, and Kozelek himself at his most unfocused. There’s no real cohesive sound on the record—and with many of the album’s tracks reaching such lengthy running times, a few of them have specific sections, or movements, where they switch gears rather suddenly—like the weird and warbled twinkling coda to “This is My First Day, And I’m Indian, And I Work at A Gas Station,” where Kozelek recalls his night playing guitar for his best bro, Ben Gibbard.
The tracks with full band instrumentation all begin with no warning—as if the tape was rolling and they all just jumped on it at once, giving these songs specifically a very freewheeling vibe that is both interesting, but also slightly confusing as to why everything seems so urgent.
Kozelek has never been one to shy away from alternate tuning and dissonance, but it’s never been as difficult on the ears as it is here—both “Garden of Lavender” and the preposterous opening track, “The Possum” each trudge along at their respective paces with dropped tuning that doesn’t help lift them from the turgid state they start in.
I mean, really, I lost track of how many times my face turned into a grimace or a wince while I was listening to this.
With my review of Benji, as well as a piece I wrote on his collaborative effort with the group Desertshore, I caught a lot of flack for my opinions on latter day Kozelek from his group of apologists—much of it amounted to how I should be able to appreciate the difference between an artist’s art and who the artist is as a person and that I shouldn’t try to suppress a musician’s growth and change in sound.
You know, I’m happy to separate Kozelek the man from Kozelek the musician. It’s something that I had done for a number of years after witnessing his live show in 2008. It’s something I’d still be happy to do if the man wasn’t shitting out festering turds of excuses for records. Anyone who thinks that this album is good, or interesting, or “deep” in some way needs to take another listen, and really reexamine themselves and what they want to get out of music.
This isn’t art. An album that ends with a spoken word outro where someone is discussing the merits of having a flip phone isn’t good or interesting. This is a fucking joke, and here’s the punch line—Mark Kozelek knows this is a joke. He’s been in on it the whole time, and you haven’t. He’s like a professional wrestling villain, playing the “heel.”
And he’s been laughing at you as you sat listening, treating every word of it like it was gospel.
Nearly 2000 words into this review/thinkpiece/whatever, I better have a point, or some kind of conclusion I guess, so here’s the crux of Universal Themes. It’s a pisstake of an album, as I expected it would be.
Full disclosure, once Universal Themes was announced, I requested to review it for this site, based on how…successful…my review of Benji was with our readership. I went into it wanting to hate it—wanting to eviscerate it and write another pithy review of it—but also, secretly hoping that this would be some kind of partial return to form; that some how, Mark Kozelek would be tolerable again.
I don’t think I’m ever going to get an album like that from Kozelek. What we get, instead, is someone who knows that they have a captive audience. Despite his best efforts to alienate his audience, “pudgy ugly dudes” who wear western shirts and tennis shoes will still buy his records; every time he puts out a vinyl pressing of something on his website, it sells out immediately and is never repressed; he continues to self-release live albums—because there’s apparently people out there looking for that definitive performance of “Tonight in Bilbao”; and, after getting that 9.2 from Pitchfork, he knows that whatever it is he commits to tape will be showered with praise.
And here’s where Mark Kozelek is not taking himself seriously at all, but yet, he demands to be taken seriously as “an artist.” He’s put out a record that includes a song that makes fun of his entire fan base; yet, he still has a fan base. He knows people will listen to this record, and see his world-weary croakings about everyday life as some kind of “window into his existence” and that people will find its blunt honesty refreshing or interesting.
This isn’t interesting. It’s insulting. At its core, Universal Themes is an album that assumes its listener is an idiot.
When I was in college, the girl I was seeing at the time once described Mark Kozelek to a member of her family as “sad bastard music.” Now, over a decade removed from that descriptor, Kozelek is just a sad bastard.
Universal Themes is out on Kozelek’s own vanity imprint, Caldo Verde, on June 2nd.
For more of Kevin’s amazingness check out Anhedonic Headphones.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. Since the summer of 2017, he began contributing “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing has also appeared in The Wagazine, and in River Valley Woman. He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.