Album review: Sun Kil Moon, “Benji”

People love to be moved — even if it’s to tears. Why else would we watch films starring Daniel Day Lewis, listen to sad songs, or watch children listen to sad songs on Youtube?

Those videos are touching, but they’re also sort of incredible, and for the same reason. These tender-ballad-loving babies seem to confirm that the feelings that arise from sad, beautiful music don’t need to be primed with language or any other context; the reaction is hardwired.

Like most of Mark Kozelek’s music, Sun Kil Moon‘s “Benji,” isn’t for kids. It’s dark subject matter is one thing, but it just wouldn’t have the intended effect on a little one. Unlike the naturally evocative mother’s voice and A Great Big World’s “Say Something” in the videos above, a primer in language and life experience is crucial in appreciating the poignancy of Kozelek’s music. “Benji” includes the finest instrumental arrangements of any Sun Kil Moon album, but even so, the sentiments—all 5,000+ words of them—take center stage. Without them, these songs would be nothing special; because of them, they’re often revelatory.

The album begins with “Carissa,” a song about Kozelek’s second cousin and as rounded an effort as any on “Benji.” It takes a little over a minute to build to the first of many tragic incidents Kozelek relates on the disc: “Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire.” “Same way as my uncle,” he shares in an off-hand, stranger-than-fiction aside he explores in full on “Truck Driver.”

Thoughout “Benji,” minute details pare the distance between listener and subject to near unbearable intimacy. On “Carissa,” the daughter comes home from a party to find her mother, an RN who died before she could make it to her midnight shift. In “Michelene,” Kozelek visits his bandmate Brett after an aneurism has left him with a horseshoe-shaped scar and a slow drawl—but he’ll always wear bellbottom jeans. The man in “Jim Wise” has a snoring son, a 90s corvette and a knee replacement. Kozelek paints these subjects deftly with few strokes to the effect that when you discover the inevitable tragedies of Brett and Jim, it hurts, though it’s hard to say why.

Other songs are almost exclusively composed of these tight-shot narratives. “Dogs” is an oft-uncomfortable recounting of Kozelek’s sexual past, exacerbated by a weak melody and ill-attempted falsettos. It captures the moments of confusion and blinding chemical impulses of early sexual experiences, but as one memory spurs another, it’s left as a sketch of ideas that never feels realized.

This relative failure is interesting, because closing track “Ben’s My Friend” is a similar rote collection of thoughts, but stands as one of the album’s best tracks. The narrative is arguably less interesting, too, as Kozelek eats “blue crab cakes” with his girlfriend, struggles to find parking at a Postal Service show and reflects on his relationship with Ben Gibbard. It has all the hallmarks of a tacked-on last track, which Kozelek owns up to in the song (“I needed one more track to finish up the record”). Along with some rare upbeat-accompaniment, the song is redeemed by its beguiling details. Struggling with middle-aged self-consciousness at a concert, competition with a friend and the omnipresence of Panera Bread—making its second appearance on the album here—none of this is interesting on its own. But they’re pieces of a composite we can relate to, whether from past experience or future fear.

If you’re new to the world of Mark Kozelek, “Benji” is a brutal introduction. Tragedy and loss pervade nearly all of the album’s 60-plus minutes. There are songs about serial killers, relatives dying and school shootings and everything they leave in their wake. It’s all a part of life, of course, one many prefer to avoid until it’s impossible. “Benji” dives in headlong.

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