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Universal Themes, the seventh album from Sun Kil Moon, begins the same way that the previous record, Benji, ended: with Mark Kozelek at a concert. But for Kozelek, the experiences could not be more different. In Benji's 'Ben's My Friend', he finds himself fearing how his aging makes him less sociable and interesting, as he sings, "There's a fine line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass and a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass." His discomfort becomes so strong that he leaves the concert without greeting his friend, Ben Gibbard of the Postal Service. But on Universal Themes' 'The Possum', Kozelek has found himself adopting the exact opposite view within a year of the previous event: "We had some laughs and we took photographs backstage and our guts were protruding and all of them and we just kept laughing and laughing." This difference can summarize much of what makes so much of Universal Themes so disappointing compared to 2014's spectacular Benji. Whereas the latter utilized Kozelek's straightforward storytelling musing on the inevitability and variety of death in the world over haunting instrumentals, Universal Themes has used much of the same formula to tell less thought provoking, less cohesive stories over substantially more drab compositions.

The album maintains Kozelek's stream-of-conscious lyric style, as he either sings or speaks about everything under the sun, from Rob Zombie movies to Maurice Ravel to a possum dying under his air conditioner. But while this approach was such a huge part of what made Benji a tremendously compelling record, it was successful there largely because that collection had an overarching theme that mused upon death, which reappeared in almost every song. Universal Themes, however, appears to be a series of unconnected vignettes from Kozelek's life that provide fleeting glimmers of insight and excitement, but nothing on par with the emotional bombardment that his previous record supplied listeners.

While Kozelek remains a gifted guitarist, it will also come as a disappointment to many Sun Kil Moon listeners that this album lacks much of the beauty that was juxtaposed so terrifically with the thoughtful takes on death from Benji. Nearly every track on that record featured stunning, stirring arrangements that could impact an audience about as powerfully as any of the lyrics. On Universal Themes, however, only 'Birds Of Flims' has the same kind of loveliness to its instrumentals. That song is the album's almost indisputable highlight, as the hypnotic harp-like guitar accentuates Kozelek's gruff vocals like a bird flashing across a grey sky. Unfortunately, this is an exception rather than the rule, as the projects adopted a much more monotonous sound with the poor decision to include a grinding electric guitar and screeching on 'With A Sort of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry'.

Further compounding these issues is the fact that Kozelek has decided to completely shun brevity. Benji was anything but terse as no song was shorter than three minutes, but of the album's eleven tracks, only one went longer than seven minutes. On Universal Themes, the shortest song is just shy of seven minutes. The first three are all over nine. If Kozelek could make songs that could capture a listener's attention for that long, it could be forgiven, but that's a monumental task to attempt and one he does not succeed in. The songs go through numerous twists and turns that can ultimately make them seem more like several songs that have just been mashed together. It makes for a pretty uneven listen.

Universal Themes is really not a bad record. It has interesting moments and one cannot really fault Kozelek for looking to present a different narrative than his previous record. But there is no denying that Benji set a high bar and this record borrows elements from it, but does so with disappointing results. Rather than analyzing the social impact of spree shootings or mercy killings or the death of family members, Kozelek has decided to sing a lot about spending time at concerts and having fun, interspersed with sad moments of reflection. The poignancy and emotionality that made 2014 such a high point for Sun Kil Moon has been traded for a bland, overwrought state of mind in 2015.

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