Monday, June 8, 2015

Universal Themes Journal

Bristol Airport, Lulsgate Bottom // Wednesday 27th May

I am killing time in WHSmith, waiting for my gate to be announced so that I can board my flight to Barcelona. Whilst flicking through the latest issue of Uncut - I tend not to buy the magazine nowadays, but I still like to sneak the odd peek at their album reviews when the opportunity arises - I spot an article about Universal Themes, the new Sun Kil Moon album that's due out in just under a week.

Sun Kil Moon's previous LP, Benji, was among my favourite albums of 2014, and so I am thrilled to learn that its follow-up is mere days away; better still, Uncut's very positive four-star review suggests that this new'un will be very much in the same stellar league as its starkly beautiful predecessor. Slipping the magazine back into the rack, I pull out my phone and add Universal Themes to my ever-expanding album wishlist, just above Flamingo by Brandon Flowers.

Hotel Hesperia Del Mar, Barcelona // Sunday 31st May

I am lounging in my hotel room in Barcelona. This is a much-needed day of rest; I have witnessed more than 20 performances since my shoes first hit Spanish soil on Wednesday, and thanks to Bacardi's corporate presence at the Primavera Sound festival, I have imbibed more than my fair share of rum in that time too.

While today is a bit of a write-off in terms of leaving the hotel and experiencing Barcelona, I do manage to send a deceptively chirpy message back home to Cardiff:

One day later, shortly before checking out of the hotel, I receive this response:

And so, as I drag my suitcase away from the Hesperia Del Mar and commence my sixteen-hour journey back to Cardiff, I take some comfort in the knowledge that there'll be a shiny new Sun Kil Moon CD waiting for me when I get there.

Spillers Records, Cardiff // Tuesday 2nd June

Having made it home from Spain in one (knackered) piece, I treat myself to a very unhealthy lunch at Five Guys before staggering over to Morgan Arcade to pick up my copy of Universal Themes. Unfortunately, though, my sense of anticipation has all but evaporated over the last few hours, and it's all because of another Uncut article - this one by John Mulvey.

You see, reader, Sun Kil Moon played a show at London's Barbican Centre last night, and according to Mulvey's write-up, the latter part of that set included a very nasty little ad-lib at the expense of Laura Snapes, a journalist who had recently conducted an interview with SKM mainman Mark Kozelek on behalf of the magazine:
'Two hours into the show, however, as Kozelek lurches back onstage for the encore, the theme takes a substantially nastier turn. First he names a British journalist who has, for reasons that are not entirely clear, annoyed him (full disclosure: that journalist is a friend and fellow Uncut writer. I would hope that my disgust at what Kozelek says is not materially affected by this, though he will doubtless beg to differ). Then he begins a spontaneous song about the writer – a woman – about how she “totally wants to fuck me” and how she should “get in line, bitch.” 
'So this, for me, is the tipping point: the exact moment when borderline dubious ragging becomes straight-up offensive misogyny. Kozelek would inevitably excuse it as his much-vaunted “great sense of humour” and indeed once he’s finished the next songs – “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “Caroline”, about probably the two most important women in his life, ironically enough – he returns to the subject. He calls the writer “nice”, “sweet”, “cute”, as if that would make things better, and claims he was “just kidding”. He then sings the song again.'
I was unsure how to react when I read Mulvey's article on the Uncut website. I was appalled by what Kozelek had done, and I instantly wished that I hadn't asked Spillers to set aside a copy of Universal Themes for me, but I didn't want to bail on them - Ash, Graf, and the other guys had reserved that album in good faith that I would eventually show up to purchase it. I consider buying the CD and snapping it in two as some sort of protest.

But as I enter The World's Oldest Record Shop™, a large part of me wants to make good on my previous boasts about being able to enjoy music even when I abhor the actions of its creators. I firmly believe that music can be wonderful in spite of the idiotic and/or problematic behavior of the people who make it, and in the end, I fork over my money (reminding myself that my particular tenner will probably end up feeding the hard-working staff at Spillers instead of going towards Mark Kozelek's next shopping trip) and I  grudgingly go home with the album that I was so keen to get my hands on just the other day.

Designer Websites, Sully // Thursday 4th June

I am back at work, and after putting it off for a couple of days, I am finally listening to Universal Themes for the first time. Based on the reviews and articles I've skimmed in preparation, I am expecting it to pick up from where Benji left off, but aside from the gargantuan song lengths, it's a very different beast to its immediate ancestor.

For one thing, the words aren't as good. The stark, journalistic lyrical style that Mark Kozelek has recently made his signature is still here, but the plainspoken, confessional beauty of Benji has been cuckooed by something prosaic and artless. Here, as an example, is a short excerpt from opening track The Possum:

"I went up to my room and I got a call from Justin,
He was in San Francisco and Godflesh was playing,
Caroline drove me halfway there where I met Tony,
And we drove to the city and we parked out in front of the DNA"

(While we're on the subject of lyrics, I really, really wish that Mark Kozelek would stop saying the word 'kitty-kat'. It was fine in UK Blues, but he uses it in pretty much every song on this album, and it just sounds so cutesy and ridiculous that it cuts right through me. I hate cats.)

The music, too, is no longer as lovely as it was last year. Kozelek has taken a splintered, piecemeal approach to songwriting in the past, and it worked wonders on Elaine from 2012's Among the Leaves:

By turns peaceful, jagged, and soothing.

But much of Universal Themes sounds stitched together in a far less appealing way - tracks flip, seemingly at random, from one time signature and feel to another and back again, and nothing ever feels quite as cohesive and brilliant as pretty much everything on Benji did.

A website called Bearded Gentlemen Music posted a very caustic review of Universal Themes shortly before it was released, and while I don't agree with everything in that article - I still think Mark Kozelek's songwriting is mostly sincere, and for all its faults, UT does rock pretty hard at times - the album does feel like a let down to me. It certainly doesn't live up to the standard set by Benji and Among the Leaves.

Or does it? Universal Themes has received plenty of positive reviews (including the Uncut feature that I read just over a week ago), and I can't help but feel that my own opinion of Kozelek's latest opus would be much higher had he not said those things in London on Monday. As much as I want to detach the art from the artist, it can be very difficult to do, especially with songs as personal and as diaristic as Sun Kil Moon's. Suddenly, I'm hearing shreds of sexism everywhere, even in the older albums - albums that I thought I really loved. The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs the Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man from Among the Leaves now sounds like a put-down to all womankind, and not just one moderately talented singer; Benji's Dogs, formerly an invigorating look back at a young man's sexual development through the years, now sounds like the work of a man who sees females as nothing more than potential conquests.

So fuck you, Mark Kozelek - you may just have ruined Sun Kil Moon for me.

P.S. Laura Snapes wrote a response to Mark Kozelek for the Guardian last week. Read it here. 

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