Sun Kil Moon
Last week I wrote about a seasoned folk singer and the release of probably his best album to date, and this week I take on another folk journeyman in Mark Kozelek who is grabbing the critical ear with Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. The Ohio-born songwriter first arrived on the scene in 1992 as the distinctive voice behind Red House Painters, a band that established Kozelek’s style of beautifully somber and contemplative songs all played sweetly and delicately on acoustic guitar. Kozelek continued into the 21st century with a new outfit in Sun Kil Moon, keeping many of the characteristics of Red House Painter with a little darker tint. Kozelek has also released a string of solo records since 2000, including last year’s solid Mark Kozelek & Desertshore. Now comes Benji, arguably Kozelek’s most deeply personal and emotionally fragile record, describing in great detail the lives and deaths of numerous people, both near and far to Kozelek’s life.
Benji opens with “Carissa”, probably Kozelek’s finest and most deeply detailed death account, speaking about his second cousin Carissa being burned alive in her house. The song speaks to that emotion of when you hear of a senseless tragedy that simply rocks your world even if that person isn’t very close to you. “Carissa was thirty-five, you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” The song is so richly detailed with seemingly arbitrary particulars like the time of his flight home for the funeral (10:45 AM), Carissa’s job and where she worked (midnight shift as an RN is Rosworth), and even the area code of the calls when he heard the news (330). Normally songwriters smooth out these details to make the song more applicable and abstract for the listener to read their personal experiences, but I think what Kozelek is doing here makes the events all the more heartbreaking, as like a richly detailed novel, it brings the tragic events completely to life.
In “Carissa” he mentions Carissa dying like his uncle, which serves as foreshadow to “Truck Driver”, which covers the life and death of his uncle. Kozelek sings unmercifully but honestly about his uncle when he says, “My uncle died in a fire on his birthday/Redneck that he was/burning trash in the yard one day.” Again, Kozelek’s honest and highly-detailed account about the subject of the song makes this feel more true and moving.
“Jim Wise” tells another heartbreaking tale of one of his father’s friends Jim Wise who mercy-killed his wife on the hospital bed, and then tried and failed to commit suicide. The song paints a vivid picture of the life of Jim and his wife before the incidents and Jim’s arrest, and parallels that with his empty life now awaiting trial and prison, with a bright keyboard line that interestingly undermines the tragedy of the song. “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” is centered around the death of the serial killer known as the “Night Stalker”, speaking to the seasons of life and how someone can go from being so dangerous to simply fading away.
In mourning the loss of many, Kozelek draws near to the ones he loves, singing two songs specifically in dedicated love to his parents. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” sings rather poetically about all the things he could live without except for his 75 year old mother, calling her “the closest friend” he has in his life. “I Love My Dad” is a more cheerful tune, recounting all sorts of good memories with his dad and pointing to many of the lessons he taught him. Kozelek is so good at painting his memories in songs like on “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”, Kozelek recounts the first time he saw the Led Zeppelin concert film as a teenager, and how since seeing that film, death has imprinted itself on him through the loss of classmates, family, and strangers, and now watching the film, the film hits him the same way 46 years later, except for the scenes with Jon Bonham and Peter Grant, who have both passed since.
An album like Benji, filled with intense personal detail, does come some shortcomings. When someone talks about life in such unedited and raw detail, it’s bound that there will be a line here and there that comes out a bit clumsy or silly sounding. On “Richard Ramirez…”, Kozelek sings “And I saw the news on James Gandolfini/While I was eating ramen and drinking green tea/The Soprano guy died at 51/That’s the same age as the guy/Who’s coming to play drums.” On “Dogs” which is named after the Pink Floyd song, Kozelek talks in endless detail about his own sexual history, including lines like “Mary Anne was my first f**k/She slid down between my legs and oh my god she could suck,” mixed with lines like “I met a girl named Debra, she lived on a canal/She made me eggs in the morning/she was such a sweet gal/And we went to Red Lobster and we went to Tangier’s.” To an extent, your enjoyment of this album will depend on your ability to buy into Kozelek’s raw stream-of-consciousness lyrics. We want our artists to be vulnerable, and that is exactly what Kozelek is here maybe even to a fault, so I can forgive him erring on the side of the ugly or even occasionally boring personal detail.
All in all, Benji is a moving and fascinating listen especially when you consider Mark Kozelek is releasing his most vulnerable album over 20 years into his career. Also, the fact that I can’t think of an album instantly comparable to this sort of highly-detailed personal account of life’s memories and personal thoughts of mortality is telling of how unique it truly is: lyrically it reads more like a novel than a record. Through all the various deaths discussed on Benji, Kozelek is, as he says in “Carissa”, trying to “find some poetry to make some sense of this and give some deeper meaning.” To bring out universal emotions in such deeply personal stories brings some meaning to these tragedies, making Benji a humane triumph.
Can’t Miss: “Carissa”, “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”, “Jim Wise”, “Micheline”
Can’t Hit: “Dogs”, “I Love My Dad”