Music Review: Benji
Sun Kil Moon
It’s not often that an album listen requires emotional preparation, but this is Mark Kozelek. I first saw him perform two springs ago at Brickside, a pleasantly small music festival organized by the Coffeehouse. The flyer said “DUU Presents,” but let’s not kid ourselves. Attendees crowded the Jameson Gallery by the dozen, encircling a tranquil Kozelek as he delivered one sorrowful lullaby after another. The subdued acoustic set lasted about an hour. Not everyone cried, but everyone was silent.
Two years and two albums later, Kozelek gives us “Benji,” Sun Kil Moon’s sixth and most harrowing record. An explicit meditation on death and longing for those who have passed, “Benji” takes Sun Kil Moon’s characteristic melancholia to new, albeit beautiful, lows. You’ll know what I mean after just a few seconds into ‘Carissa,’ the album’s opening track about an old friend who died in a freak accident fire. My description directly quotes the song’s lyrics, a testament to the unadorned narrative style Kozelek deploys in this record: fewer metaphors, more literal storytelling. A slow-paced guitar guides Kozelek’s somber lyrics that move between narrating Carissa’s life and mourning her unexpected death. The song avoids sounding like a tritely uplifting tribute by owning itself as a disheartening and chillingly detailed account of mortality.
Kozelek breaks from the downtrodden eulogies with two tender songs about his parents. In the track about his mother, aptly titled ‘I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love,’ Kozelek lists adverse scenarios he’d be willing to cope with, from the sky falling to growing old alone—anything but losing his mother’s love. The song’s affectionate lyrics pair nicely with Kozelek’s quiet strumming, a noticeable contrast to the upbeat rhythm of ‘I Love My Dad,’ which incorporates springy drums and echoing female vocals. The song is Kozelek’s platform for reminiscing the lessons he’s learned from his father. The beauty of Kozelek’s tribute is his ability to avoid valorizing a dad who made mistakes. You’ll glean from the lyrics that the man wasn't faultless (“I ain't trying to say my dad was some kind of a perfect saint”), but Kozelek doesn't let that trivialize his father’s formative presence in his upbringing.
‘Micheline’ tells three more stories of Kozelek’s lost loved ones. The first recounts a pure-hearted childhood friend named Micheline. She “had dreams like anyone else” before getting caught up with a manipulative boyfriend who left her penniless. Kozelek’s pool buddy Brett comes next. The lyrics maintain their smooth delivery despite their relative verbosity: “he had an awkward way of playing barre chords with two fingers, spreading his index and middle fingers really far apart.” You’d think this would be a mouthful even for Kozelek, but the words flow gorgeously alongside his steadily paced strumming. The song ends with a tribute to Kozelek’s grandmother, and it’s revealed that the album’s title comes from Kozelek’s lyric about seeing the film “Benji” while visiting her in Los Angeles. This segment’s ostensible insignificance to the listener underscores the record’s personal import: we don’t have to “get it” to feel with Kozelek.
This album’s bold literalness makes each sung narrative all the more real. Kozelek is at his most vulnerable because he doesn’t bother embellishing lyrics with his signature metaphoric style. “Benji” is heavy, dark and at times unapologetically depressing, but Kozelek’s ability to show us beauty in even the saddest circumstances is heard throughout. More than any other Sun Kil Moon album, “Benji” is a delicate, honest and deeply personal melodic diary.