Friday, 11 December 2015

My Top Ten Albums of 2015 - Number Eight

Although I didn't get into last year's much-acclaimed Sun Kil Moon album, Benji, until early 2015, I'd now rate it as a classic of 2014. So I was very much looking forward to Mark Kozelek's next record, Universal Themes, which dropped in the middle of this year. It had a very hard job to maintain the heartbreaking and hilarious standard of Benji - an exercise in autobiographical songwriting unlike anything I'd ever heard before - and to be honest, it doesn't really come close. But it's still a good record if you try not to make the comparison.

The obvious problem with Universal Themes is that, despite its title, it really has no theme. Whereas Benji was ultimately a meditation on growing older and losing people unexpectedly (following a series of - at times, bizarre - bereavements among Kozelek's social circle), this record really does sound like pages ripped from his rambling, stream-of-consciousness diary. There's very little to connect them beyond the songwriter's starkly confessional and wry, occasionally abrasive, outlook on life.

The album opens with the author stumbling across an old, injured possum in his yard and attempting to nurse it back to health. Then he goes off to see the band Godflesh playing live in San Francisco and leaves the possum with his girlfriend but the poor animal eventually dies and both Mark and Caroline are sad. Rambling? Yes. But there's still something here. Some truth, about life, that you rarely hear in a pop song. And that's pretty much the whole album in one song.

Elsewhere in the diary, Kozelek plays himself in a Swiss film (and resists getting off with the make-up girl), gets upset because a band doesn't play his favourite songs at a concert, meets Jane Fonda in a hotel lobby, sacks a band member and feels bad about it, discovers that he has the same embarrassing phone as a famous nuclear physicist, and name-drops everybody from Powers Boothe to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffet to Gomez, Aleister Crowley to Mick fuckin' Jagger. Oh, and the possum makes a comeback. Sort of.

No, it's not as good as Benji. But you still won't hear another record that sounds anything like it this year.

Next, at Number 7, Craig holds steady to his faith in the future.


  1. Kozelek seems unwilling to stand still for long and has already travelled some distance since 'Admiral Fell Promises', one of my favourite albums of 2010, and a million miles from 2003's excellent 'Ghosts of the Great Highway'. I struggled to get to grips with 'Universal Themes' after 'Benji', but I'll keep plugging away, his records always repay the extra effort.

    1. That's true. I almost gave up on this but I was glad I peservered. Do need to check out his earlier stuff though.

  2. I also prefer Benji, which is more accessible and was in my top 5 last year. Universal Themes is self-indulgent, but has its moments, especially "Garden of Lavender" and the ending of "The Possum" resonated with me. I agree there is some truth about life in the storytelling.


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