Universal Themes: How Mark Kozelek Broke Objectivity In Music Criticism

When it comes to music criticism and “tastemaking”, Pitchfork is one of the largest and most (in)famous publications today. The financial impact a Pitchfork rating can have on an album is often immeasurable due to its scope of readership of influence, however this week we saw the model come to a screeching halt with a pair of reviews of Sun Kil Moon’s Universal Themes.

Sun Kil Moon is the project of musician Mark Kozelek, who has become an infamous figure in his own right, much in part due to Pitchfork headlines which have reflected his acts of assholery over the last several months. Kozelek, a veteran curmudgeon who has experienced immense tragedy in his life, has been on a mean streak since the release of his critically-acclaimed album Benji.

First there was his outburst in Tennessee, which later became source material for ‘Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues’. Then, he complained about The War On Drugs’ music spilling over into his set at the Ottawa Folk Festival. Later, he doubled down by releasing the charming single ‘The War On Drugs Can Suck My Cock’, which you can hear below.

Having made it clear to anyone listening that he truly doesn’t give a fuck (a statement he reiterates on the final song of his latest album, Universal Themes) Mark recently took his act up a notch onstage in London, this time using his platform to disparage journalist Laura Snapes in a torrent of sexually violent and misogynistic bullshit. It was a sad day for the man and it was a sad day for music. As you can hear from this audio, the crowd dutifully laughed and clapped along as Kozelek verbally assaulted an innocent woman, as if it was all part of the act.

Now I’ll be the first to recognize and celebrate the subjectivity of music, but when it comes to a man using a platform to needlessly disparage an innocent person, I’d hope objectivity could creep its way back into the conversation, if not just for a moment, preferably one long enough to Booo the asshole.

The fact is, there’s a difference between Mark Kozelek, the misogynistic asshole without a filter, and Sun Kil Moon, the artist. And while I will begrudgingly forgive a London crowd for going along with an unexpected and sick joke, I would hold a musical publication like Pitchfork to a higher standard.

As first pointed out on Reddit over at /R/Music, Pitchfork initially published a review of Sun Kil Moon’s latest album Universal Themes that was written by the indispensable Ian Cohen. It was at this time that Kozelek went on his tirade towards (Pitchfork contributor) Laura Snapes, and while this was a disgusting act that deserved ridicule, the stunt seemed to leave an impression with Pitchfork and other publications like Stereogum. The Cohen review, linked to in a since-deleted tweet shown here, was removed soon after it went live.

Later, a seemingly short review written by Mark Richardson was published. The review opens with two paragraphs regarding the past transgressions of Kozelek the person, conceding this crucial point before the words “Universal Themes” are written or directly referenced:

“The end result of these developments is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine Sun Kil Moon’s music outside of how it, and he, are discussed on social media. And since Mark Kozelek’s music is so specifically autobiographical, and because he is the central character in each of these songs, it’s doubly hard for his behavior not to have some impact.”

Much like a 99-year old Dan Endelberg, whom Sun Kil Moon sings about in ‘Ali/Spinks 2’, this is where Pitchfork simply gives up completely. Fuck objectivity, he’s making a #buzz on Twitter.

The great irony here is that while Richardson did an admirable thing in defending a colleague, the logic behind the move, that of going along with the crowd, is the same that lead everyone in London to laugh and clap when Kozelek disparaged Snapes onstage in the first place.

Instead of writing an honest review of Universal Themes that took into account only the source material, Richardson and Pitchfork have set fire to their objectivity in a blaze of glory that Kozelek himself would admire. By pulling Ian Cohen’s initial review and publishing an admittedly subjective revenge piece, Pitchfork has made it clear their reviews are written and scored with their greater business goals in mind. And if you’ve paid attention to the consistency with which expected Pitchfork Festival headliners receive Best New Music honours, this should come as no real revelation.

Having reviewed Benji for Pitchfork, giving it a well-earned 9.2, Ian Cohen was the appropriate writer to be given the Universal Themes review. Although, as it turns out, his review may not have been appropriate for Pitchfork’s business model. The score Cohen gave to Universal Themes may not ever be known, however we can suppose the higher it was, the more likely it was to be taken down. Having grown an incredible amount of respect for Cohen’s writing, I would have loved to read that review. But knowing what I know now, the number hardly matters.

Pitchfork may have once offered an objective point of view on independent music, but thanks to Mark Kozelek it has never been clearer that Best New Music is just as subjective and meaningless as what you see on social media. That being said, I won’t bother throwing my own two cents into the online discourse, I will simply suggest you listen to it before you buy it, and make your mind up for yourself.

Personally, I’ve chosen to separate the artist, Sun Kil Moon, from the man, Mark Kozelek. By downloading Sun Kil Moon’s music, I’ve been able to appreciate the artwork without contributing a single cent to the man’s career. And given the previous evidence that suggests Kozelek reads his reviews, I can only hope he has been reading this and other loathsome think pieces from the Universal Themes saga, if only to realize that the onstage antics of the musician Sun Kil Moon have clearly cost the bank account of the man, Mark Kozelek.