Music Reviews

Sun Kil Moon Benji

(Caldo Verde Records) Rating - 9/10

Spanning a career of over twenty five years, Mark Kozelek has explored the different dimensions that lie in one’s inner psyche, mostly built around ponderous acoustic passages that are both plaintive and therapeutic. He’s almost determined to remain locked in his sadness, fully accepting of the circumstantial disasters and wrong turns that he continues to take. Revisiting his extensive discography is like reuniting with an old friend whose flaws one tries to overlook, concerned about his decisions only to realize that he’s well and content in his placement. At first, it can be a tad intimidating to choose a starting point to explore his body of work, except that there really isn't any right way to start - Kozelek rarely changes his tune, and you can almost measure his life in chronological succession until a larger story begins to unfold. 

Kozelek’s sixth project under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, Benji, is his most intimate work yet, thoroughly documenting definitive moments that marked his past and continue to haunt his present. There’s no need to question the veracity of his accounts since they’re so convincingly laid out, referencing even the littlest details to paint a literal landscape without even the slightest hint of distortion. It may be a challenging listen for those who seek art that allows room for self-reflection, a forceful expression of vanity that demands you to give him your absolute attention. We’re invited into his personal space for an hour’s worth, delivering his plainspoken monologue with a vulnerability that is fearless, yet gentle; it’s so candid and in the moment that you can presence his struggle for inspiration.

A lingering guitar progression echoes around album opener Carissa, in which Kozelek speculates about the unfortunate death of a second cousin that he hardly knew. It immediately outlines one prevalent theme that is sketched throughout the entirety of Benji - that of coming closer with relatives that are forever bound together by bloodline, expressing his utmost reverence by dignifying their domestic lives with the potency of a simple song. “She was only my cousin but it don’t mean that I’m not here for her or that I wasn’t meant to give her life poetry”, he closes after detailing how a can of aerosol caught fire and caused her unfortunate death. He questions how poor chance has cursed his family’s fate, tying up the events of Carissa with that of his redneck uncle who died almost virtually the same way in the track Truck Driver. Both accounts feel genuine because he sympathizes from a distance instead of inserting character into his subjects to make them more compelling, focusing solely on what little he knew of them and why they didn’t deserve to die the way they did. 

As indulgent as his matter-of-fact musings may have been in the past, Kozelek mostly takes a backseat to devote most of his time to others. I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love is a lovely ode to his seventy-five year old mother, keeping a steady sense of rhythm as he counts all the ways in which he’ll defend her honor. Most poignant is the relaxed country twang of I Love My Dad, an awfully humorous ditty in which he recounts in his usual slur all the ways his father taught him humility, even if he “hit the floor quicker than what Mike Tyson did to Ricky Sveen” when he dared to challenge his discipline. This pair is just as sweet as it sounds, as if Kozelek were penning a living epitaph in song form to his parents while he still has them around.

That doesn’t mean that Kozelek doesn’t reserve some time to write about himself, though curiously, he lessens his disparaging nature in favor of emphasizing some of his most humiliating moments with jokey self-awareness. He goes through a timeline of most of his past crushes and lovers in the Neil Young-evoking Dogs (and haven’t we all), summing up the endless cycle of romance and rejection but not before giving insight about his first sexual experiences - from developing an apprehension for blondes ever since a girl knocked him for giving her a kiss when he was five, to recalling his first “taste” with two women in a drunken stupor, until finding the motherly nourishment of a woman who drifted because he felt there was a "spark" missing. The one song that tackles the subject of despondency is arguably its most strung out, I Watched The Film The Song Remains the Same, a hauntingly beautiful number in which he tries find meaning in his melancholy, except that the imagery he illustrates contributes very little to the metaphor at hand. 

And then there’s the rambling, storyteller side in Kozelek, the observer that fixates on tragic national events like mass shootings and serial killers with a compassionate conception of morality. But none of these are as eerie as the devastating story of his father’s friend Jim Wise, who got convicted for mercy killing his wife after a failed suicide attempt. What makes Jim Wise so frighteningly affective is how he describes all the particulars of Wise’s sad, woebegone existence, sung softly in the form of a children’s lullaby that ends with a tone of utter hopelessness. 

When we feel a deep affection for the artists that we praise, there’s always that concealed desire to know what’s deep within their core. But there is sometimes an unwarranted discretion to impose, as if it’s best not to know too much. Kozelek doesn’t seem to mind breaking the fourth wall with Benji, and fully involves his audience even if he sounds like he’s writing in an empty room with a sole guitar in hand. His stream of consciousness narrative form is expressed through varying levels of awareness, smoothed out with an austere feel even if it’s boiling with emotional comfort and relief. There isn’t anything remotely remarkable about Benji - the melodies sound familiar, the verbiage is typically colloquial, and his poetic style is mild-mannered, never dwelling on sensitive topics like ideology or faith. 

But it needn’t be - Kozelek creates because it’s his need, a blessing that cannot be wasted. And Benji is his way of showing gratitude to those who enriched his life to its greatest capacity. He indicates this early on in the album when he states: “I can live without what you might call a charmed life”. To him, it may feel like going back to the studio and completing a twelve hour shift; going back to doing his job: writing more records. At some point in the process, he found that the only way to move forward was to turn the clock back. That he decided to approach it with such openness is his greatest gift to us.