Packed into charity shop record bins by the bucket load, country albums, usually complete with clumsy cover art that features cheesy-grinned faces positioned awkwardly in front of stock cotton-picking backdrops, are normally seen as the records that taste forgot. But on Universal Themes, alt-country icons Sun Kil Moon’s second album in as many years, the project’s head honcho Mark Kozelek continues to establish himself as a songwriter of great beauty and emotion, painting life’s myriad impressions like a rusty guitar-carrying Virginia Woolf.
The devil eternally in the detail, he voices everything from the smaller qualms and concerns of the average bloke (Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’ rank displeasure at seeing a band fail to play your favourite song) to life’s overwhelming cruelties, the elegiac Little Rascals telling, with characteristic apathy, of the untimely death of a lover.
Never one to get his arse splintered from sitting on the fence, Kozelek uses Universal Themes as a constant barrage of delicate anecdotes and unabridged rambling, treating each song’s main theme as a jumping-off point for recounting seemingly unrelated memories and happenings. With A Sort of Grace I Walked To The Bathroom To Cry tells of Led Zeppelin listening and father-son fishing trips, creating an impression of an oddball life that puts equal stock in the mundane and the profound.
Musically only a washboard south of a skiffle band, the record’s ramshackle, mainly-acoustic backroom vibe only compounds Kozelek’s jittery, non-linear storytelling, frequently segueing, without warning, into bluesy, hillbilly hinterlands before getting back on track.
Sprawling, resonant, and a wondrous journey into the minutiae of modern life, Universal Themes is a glorious and, at times, devastating listen that leaves no description undrawn. A career best from a band that keeps on giving.