We’re only four months into 2014 and Mark Kozelek has already delivered an early favorite for album of the year with Benji, his sixth studio release under his Sun Kil Moon moniker. Hot on the heels of a productive 2013 that saw him unleash four full-length offerings under his own name – an eclectic run ranging from a live album (“Live at the Phoenix Public House Melbourne”); a synth-driven effort with the Album Leaf’s Jimmy Lavalle (“Perils from the Sea”); a collaboration with former Red House Painters bandmate/guitarist Phil Carney’s new outfit, Desertshore (“Mark Kozelek & Desertshore”); and an album of covers whose honorees include Bad Brains, Descendents, Danzig, Misfits, Dayglo Abortions and Bruno Mars (“Like Rats”) – Kozelek opted to keep his creative train rolling on, digging deep within himself, his familial roots and all the pain, love and confusion residing therein to produce what may very well be considered the greatest single collections of music he has released in the quarter-century he’s been active.
A bit of background history for the uninitiated: Mark Kozelek formed Red House Painters, an alt-folk/alternative band, in 1989. When label complications proved too arduous, he started work under the name Sun Kil Moon, an homage to the Korean lightweight pugilist Moon Sung-Kil. In 2003, Sun Kil Moon’s first album, “Ghosts of the Great Highway,” came out on Kozelek’s then-new label, Caldo Verde Records.
Between then and now, he’s maintained a pace that would put many of his soon-to-be quinquagenarian contemporaries to shame. Overlaying his crisp, baritone vocals (which have developed a rich, raspy inflection in his more recent works) with deceptively intricate guitar work that, on occasion, causes the jaw to drop ever so slightly when he chooses to add in particularly pretty flourish, he’s steadily developed a body of work which, retrospectively, is among the finest in his field.
Of all his full-length compositions, however, there has never been anything quite like the morose, sharply descriptive Benji. Kozelek often opts to supersede metaphor and similar poetic devices in favor of telling a story, expressing how he feels as plainly as possible. The result is, almost without exception, a revelation of unadulterated beauty.
The album opens with “Carissa,” a heartbreaking song which tells the true story of Kozelek’s second cousin who died in an accidental fire when an aerosol can exploded in the trash – a freak coincidence, considering his uncle (her grandfather) died the same exact way years earlier (his story will later be explored in more detail in the album’s third track, “Truck Driver”). Although he admits she was “one of so many relatives” he saw at his uncle’s funeral after last seeing her when she was “fifteen and pregnant and running wild,” he nonetheless is left devastated and hurries home to Ohio to grieve with his relatives and “find some poetry to makes some sense of this.”
The theme of mortality hangs heavily over Benji’s hour-long duration spanning 11 songs. In “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” the album’s second track, Kozelek pulls into focus a fear common to all of us: the loss of a parent. Like most of the record’s entries, the song serves as one half of a binary, two-song system, and on the seventh track, “I Love My Dad,” he honors the other half of his ultimate roots. Where the song about his mother deals more with the fear of losing her to the erosion of time and health, his father’s tributary track is less ornate with worry and focuses more on detailing life lessons he gleaned off of his imperfect father who taught him, among many things, “how to care for those in need and to show respect,” “not to gloat,” “to each his own,” that “your trip is your trip and my trip is my trip,” “everyone’s different” and that “you’ve gotta love them all equally.” If this particular song sounds a wafer-thin bit like a Jeff Tweedy-led band out of Chicago, Kozelek all but outright acknowledges as much when he takes a name-dropping jab (not his first) at their lead guitarist, stating plainly, “I still practice a lot, but not as much as Nels Cline.”
“Dogs” is somewhat of a standalone track, both in content and production, chronicling Kozelek’s earliest encounters with the opposite sex. Beginning with an stolen kiss while in kindergarten (“I was only five years old and she hit me with her purse”), moving through his first of what surely was many uses of music as a means of seduction (“I gave her Pink Floyd – Animals when we were in sixth grade and it was on her turntable when I met her on Sunday”) before eventually rounding the proverbial home plate (unsurprisingly, this prompts the point where the drums kick in) only to be dumped shortly after for “a guy with sweatpants and a pick-up truck.” He summarizes these experiences rather succinctly in the song’s last line when he says, “It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on.”
Things get even heavier on the record’s fifth track, “Song for Newtown,” which approaches the grave subject of mass shootings about as well as anyone ever could hope to. In just over four minutes, Kozelek recounts several famous instances, all of which invariably were reacted to with hushed solemnity until the next day when “everybody got up and stretched and yawned and then our lives went on.”
That song’s counterpart is undoubtedly Benji’s most driving number, “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes.” In five and a half minutes, every hip hop artist currently in the game is given a run for their money. Rapid-fire bursts of detailed, hyper-descriptive verse describe The Night Stalker’s horrific reign of terror in Boston during the mid-‘80s. The intrinsic, nonsensical unfairness of life is brought into focus, and Kozelek even addresses his own failing health, saying plainly “I got a nagging prostate and I got a bad back and when I fuck too much it feels like I’m gonna have a heart attack.” If it weren’t for the strict adherence to a rhyme scheme (which he holds to, despite some overlong lines, by overlapped vocal tracks), the song’s lyrics may have been mistaken for stream of consciousness. As it stands, it’s one of the strongest and most memorable tracks on the record.
Taking us over the album’s halfway mark is “Jim Wise,” a story about Kozelek’s father’s friend who “mercy-killed his wife in a hospital at her bedside,” but when he tried to follow her into the afterlife, the gun jammed. Currently facing a trail which will likely put him behind bars, Wise often succumbs to tears when remembering her in her better days. Opening with a delicate, almost ghostly floating harpsichord, the song feels deceptively jovial in its onset.
Kozelek actually discussed the eighth entry on the record, “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same’” in a New York Times article ahead of the album’s release. (Yes, along with being a successful and acclaimed musician and a pretty good actor, he’s also a published columnist in the United States’ most respected daily periodical.)
“Like a lot of real-life experiences that influence me, the movie ended up in one of my songs,” he wrote, and, like many of the songs he’s released over the years, “the lyrics on this one start on a defined subject, then spiral into other areas and eventually return to the same place.” The lyrics take him from a Canton, Ohio movie theater with his friends – where he watched the eponymous film – to the passing of his grandmother to an instance of violence on a playground to traveling to visit his friend who signed him to his first record deal in the early ‘90s. And yes, like every other song on the record, it feels pretty perfect.
“Micheline” tells three separate tales. The first is of a mentally challenged young girl (the song’s namesake) who lived in his neighborhood while he was growing up. Like many of the real-life characters in his songs, her story is not a particularly happy one, but it nonetheless conveys the air of kind consideration characteristic of his work, sharply expressed when he says, simply, “She wanted love like anyone else.” The second story, about his friend Brett who “had an awkward way of playing barre chords with two fingers, spreading his index and middle fingers really far apart,” ends in a shocking and abrupt way, leaving us shaking our heads at the sometimes tragic randomness in life. The last story, about his grandmother, is touching and intimate and, in a very pithily passing way, explains the album’s title.
“Ben is My Friend,” the record’s closing track, is unabashedly odd, intermixing strange refrain choices and arguably the most driving guitar strumming on the record with elegant saxophone work and Neil Young/Bruce Springsteen/John Darnielle/Paul Simon-style itemized lyricism, and though it’s not the most obvious choice for a final song, it leaves things off on a high note that, even as recent as the album’s previous track, felt almost unreachable beforehand.
Propelled by Kozelek’s deft nylon string guitar work – which covers every range from classical to rock while touching every bluesy, jazzy and folky surface in between – Benji’s lasting strengths rest, without question, on the back of his dauntingly powerful lyrics, and it sometimes feeling as if he’s perhaps a tonal change or two away from throwing out the melody altogether in favor of a pure spoken word format. Beautiful and interesting guitar textures woven into the fabric of each and every song solicit multiple visits, if not to peel away the deeper and harsher layers of each entry’s lyrical subtext, then to pay respect to the expert craftsmanship that went into the vehicle of their conveyance. Artists work their entire lives, rubbing their fingers to bone to produce something as moving and nearly flawless as Sun Kil Moon’s Benji.
The bar for 2014 has officially been set.
(All photos, videos and music used in association with this article appear in their unaltered form and, where clear attribution was possible, were duly credited.)
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