Benji, Mark Kozelek’s sixth studio album as Sun Kil Moon, tells things exactly as they are. And I mean exactly. All of the stories told are true events from Kozelek’s life and all of the characters are real people. Kozelek also makes virtually no use of metaphor when recounting the unrelenting awkward,sad and poignant events which dominate Benji. He has the awareness to realise these stories make profound statements of their own and he narrates them with a sincerity and humility which is genuinely moving and unique.
Against a background of hypnotic nylon guitar, Kozelek opens the album with a moving tribute to his cousin Carissa, who died from an aerosol can exploding in the trash. By bizarre coincidence, this is also how his uncle, (who he pays tribute to in Truck Driver) died. Kozelek sings, ‘Carissa was thirty-five, you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die’, capturing with personal sentiment how fundamentally unjust the world can be. Pray for Newtown, Kozelek’s hometown recalls famous massacres that punctuated his life and Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes (referring to the Portuguese serial killer) covers similar territory regarding the senseless killing of the innocent to ominous, Nirvana Unplugged-esque accompaniment. Heavy stuff indeed.
Nonetheless Kozelek doesn’t dwell on the obviously tragic nature of such events in a way common to the ‘middle-aged man ponders mortality’ genre. Instead, tragedy appears as just another aspect to the rich tapestry of life Kozelek explores with such astuteness. Accompanying every heart-breaking tale is a reference to eating ‘Domino’s Pizza’, watching ‘Happy Days’ or something of the like. By contrasting the seemingly mundane with some of the heaviest subjects possible, Kozelek makes the trivial exquisite. This is no more apparent than in the tributes to his parents; ‘I Can’t Live without My Mother’s Love’ and ‘I Love My Dad’. In the latter, a tongue-in-cheek dad rocker, Kozelek reminisces ‘When I was five I came home from kindergarten crying cause they sat me next to an albino’, humorously capturing all that is wonderful about childhood innocence and naivety.
Benji is one of the most crushingly honest albums you will ever hear. On the raw and bluesy ‘Dogs’, for example, Kozelek recalls ever important sexual experience he has ever had, from the adolescent and awkward (described with excellent profanity) to the tender and romantic. The track is intelligently produced, subtly building to a (rather appropriate) climax. A middle-aged musician attempting to retell their entire life story in a ten minute song would ordinarily be the perfect recipe for tiresome self-indulgence, something Kozelek was at times guilty of in 2012’s Among the Leaves. However, Kozelek’s intriguing and contrasting selection of storiesand his masterful narration of them mean he pulls it off in ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’. In the closing two minutes of the track, as backing vocals (including those of Will Oldham aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) fade in and out like echoes from the past, Kozelek seems to have discovered exactly what nostalgia sounds like- it sounds stunningly beautiful.
Closing the album with the lush up-tempo swinger ‘Ben’s My Friend’, Kozelek describes attending a Postal Service concert and feeling out of place ‘amongst the drunk kids staring at their cells’. Kozelek also admits to being slightly jealous of his friend Ben Gibbard’s success and doesn’t meet up with him after the gig, saying ‘There’s a fine line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass and a guy with a gut hanging around like a jackass’ with trademark self-deprecation. Kozelek’s deadpan humour is on top form throughout the record, offering welcome relief from its heavy themes.
With Benji, Mark Kozelek confronts us with the most powerful tool of emotional reaction and reflection he can find. He gives us real people (including himself), tells us about their real lives (and often deaths) and simply asks us to give them some thought. Kozelek knows there are no answers, but he asks us all the right questions.