Sun Kil Moon - Benji

Spanning tragedies both personal and global, Kozelek is a funerary troubadour with serious range.

Additional Info


ALBUM: Benji

ARTIST: Sun Kil Moon



Last week was a perfect storm of artistic moroseness for me: I began to read the ripe David Foster Wallace biography, just five years after his suicide; I undertook a-film-a-night regimen following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death; and most difficultly, I underwent the limbic assault that is Sun Kil Moon’s Benji (Caldo Verde Records).

In Almost Famous, Hoffman’s character Lester Bangs says, “great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love.” The film is about a young music journalist who tours with the fledgling 1970s band Stillwater and chronicles the musicians’ vainglorious ascent to impeding success. It took me awhile to remember that Mark Kozelek (moniker Sun Kil Moon) is the Stillwater bassist, Larry Fellows. From what I can tell, Kozelek’s character is a quiet nymphomaniac overshadowed by the megalomaniacal struggle between the front man and guitarist. In “Micheline,” recorded fourteen years after Kozelek appeared in Almost Famous, Kozelek recalls telling his mother that he got the movie part, and rather than laud her son’s success, she tells Mark that his friend Brett has died, and that he ought to write a letter to Brett’s mom and dad. If you took a shot of your favorite bourbon for each of Benji’s eleven tracks, I would bet on your net sobriety by the end. Mark characterizes the people who die, but more importantly, he characterizes his relationships with them. This is what distinguishes Benji from fleet death homages like Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” and Pennywise’s “Bro Hymn.” Mark’s mother is just one of the intensely genuine figures collected on this sobering album. She knows, like Hoffman à la Bangs, that art is about conflict.

It’s jarring, the way absolute sincerity in songs like “I Love My Dad” and “Micheline” sounds, at first, like parody. It takes awhile for the ears to recalibrate, to undo the irreverent undertones of contemporary musical jesters—from Stephen Malkmus of the Jicks to James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to Sam France of Foxygen—whose sarcastic and ironic flourishes have trained our ears to expect flippancy. David Foster Wallace believed that a few decades ago irony became the mode by which intelligent people demonstrated their profound awareness of the world, a way of showing a mastery of the way things are by way of inversion, a glib depiction of the way things aren’t. Benji is a refreshing return to straightforward candor, proving it is an equally fruitful affect by which intelligent art can convey themes of love, lust, mortality, grief, gratitude, and regret. It seems a shame, though, to be obliged to call ‘sincerity’ an affect, but when it’s reclamation, a coup against the irreverent status quo, it can be considered nothing else.

In the last track, “Ben’s My Friend,” Kozelek’s bridges echo the last words of each verse, and hilariously inessential phrases like “blue crab cakes” and “sports bar shit” are strategically repeated to test the listener’s steeliness. While it feels OK to crack a smile—the humor is compositionally self-aware as is Kozelek’s penchant for the mundane—the same echoing property that trains its listener towards levity falters when the third echo ruminates on his mother: “I worry about her to death (ba-ba-baah / ba-ba-baah).” This track ripples the stoic façade as Dan Bejar-inspired saxophone (Kaputt) and Spanish guitar (Five Spanish Songs) softly lands the listener back on his/her feet, adrift in the crystalline consciousness that was, for Kozelek, “this Tenderloin summer,” a reference to the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco where Kozelek lives and recorded much of the album.

Tracks two and seven are energized (relative to Kozelek, that is) love songs to his mother and father, respectively opening and closing the more lethargic gothic Midwest midsection. On track two (“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), Kozelek is accompanied by Will Oldham of Bonnie Prince Billy as he inventories the things he could live without (apparently everything) as he reminds himself that the one thing he can’t live without, his mother’s love, is embodied in her mortal, seventy-five-year-old body, “and one day she won’t be here.” Track seven (“I Love My Dad”) is a more uplifting track in which Kozelek forgives his father (“my father taught me not to gloat / and if I came home too proud of myself / I’d get wrestled to the floor and choked / but I forgive him for that / he was an eighth grade dropout / and I was being a brat”). Kozelek redeems this initial image of his father by providing us with his father’s moral lessons—best encapsulated by the first lines of The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway’s father tells him: “‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” The track is replete with a bluesy guitar solo and flash choir, a manic high point of the record.

Track three through six are delivered with the gospel groan and spare nylon-string acoustics of William Elliot Whitmore and occasional inflections à la the debased twang of O’Death. Many of the songs are maximalist obituaries, diptychs packed with equal parts biography and eulogy, all filtered through Kozelek’s absurd Americana memory of the way things were or appeared to be. In these songs, Kozelek forges closure for relatives (close and estranged), friends (old and new), and far-flung acquaintances whose ghosts have long saddled him. These are the much-needed blue-collar American folk unsung of since Springsteen’s Nebraska, though it’s unlikely that this album will supplant the quaint approachable archetype that has manifested between Nebraska and Benji.

Other songs skew confessional. On “Dogs,” Kozelek begins “Katy Kerlan was my first kiss,” then continues in this vein, to unveil his first love, his first fondle, his first cunnilingus, his “first fuck.” The bluesy slant rhyme of kiss/purse, home/low, notes/broke, heart/spark, etc. rings sinister as he conjures the timbre of unplugged Kurt Cobain covering Meat Puppets. “Pray For Newtown,” a titular imperative about the massacre in Connecticut is thankfully not about gun control, but it is irritatingly didactic and non-secular.

The deluge of melancholic detail in tracks eight through eleven lend verisimilitude to Benji. One gets the feeling that the world Kozelek is depicting is approaching coextensivity, a 1:1 scale in which representation overtakes the thing itself, an associative autobiographical collage akin to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or, on a more contemporary note, Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me. We are given uncanny mirror images of the circumstances surrounding tragedy in the suburbs of Akron and the city of San Francisco, the emotional hubs of these songs. These songs do not deaden Kozelek; they do not inflict him with hypochondriasis or Cotard’s delusion. Rather, the intimate and immediate relationship between he and the listener evade such moroseness. Second person pronouns and imperatives implying a second person are used often enough to nourish this relationship. These are thorough meditations on inexplicable loss of life. In many songs, his desperate rambling leaves him breathless, and respiration itself becomes an instrument, an attempt to resuscitate Benji’s corpses.

The thematic resonances and karmic juxtaposition of some songs are evidence of this being a covert concept album. He forgives his father just before apologizing to the kid he long ago pommeled on the playground. Just as Brett’s death overshadows news of his acting gig in “Micheline,” Kozelek’s own midlife artistic crisis will surely be sobering to a successful Ben Gibbard of The Postal Service (“It was quiet and I was listening to the crickets / and Ben’s still out there selling lots of tickets”). Too, Kozelek anticipates judgment for his tell-all sexploitation in “Dogs” as he says in “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”: “Judge me for my ways and my slew of ex-lovers, but don’t ever dare say a bad word ‘bout my mother.” This internal memory is what makes Benji cohere. This, and the unceremonious way each song ends, mimetic of premature death.

As with Admiral Fell Promises (2010) and Among the Leaves (2012), Kozelek’s preponderantly solo approach to Sun Kil Moon makes one wonder what, aside from marketing, compels Kozelek to record as a solo artist as opposed to SKM. His three releases since Among the Leaves were all “Mark Kozelek” albums. Meanwhile, Sun Kil Moon, originally the reformation of Red House Painters, continues to depart from the latter’s aesthetic forays into shoegaze. Perhaps, though, it is the cameos that keep Kozelek’s asymptotal claim to the Sun Kil Moon moniker at bay. On Benji, one can hear the likes of friends Steve Shelley, Jen Wood, Will Oldham, and Owen Ashworth.

2014 has been a big year for half-century alt monoliths Stephen Malkmus and Mark Kozelek. (Actually, both are only forty-seven). Stephen Makmus’ sixth as a Jick (Wig Out at Jagbags, Matador 2014) marked number six to Pavement’s five while Benji ties it up for Kozelek (six with Sun Kil Moon and six with Red House Painters). Whereas Malkmus may never again be involved in the creation of something as critically acclaimed as Crooked Rain Crooked Rain (Matador 1994), Benji is to-date Kozelek’s preeminent contribution to alternative music, crystallizing Kozelek as a nonpareil singer-songwriter.

On the first track, you can hear Kozelek’s ars poetica: “I didn’t know [Carissa] well at all, but it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t meant to find some poetry to make sense of some of this.” Despite creating brimful poetry, Kozelek casts the subjects of his songs as the creators, he as a mere finder. This humble attitude toward his art is present throughout, and so, the theme of mortality transcends into something more than sensitivity to midlife circumstance. The gratitude he has for his father for paying for better guitar lessons is implicit through Kozelek’s practicing of pentatonic scales mid-song. Likewise, in the ten-plus-minute opus “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same,” an homage to the Led Zeppelin concert film, Kozelek promises to go to his grave with his melancholy where his “ghost will echo [his] sentiments for all of eternity,” his craft is self-aware. In the latter song, Benji evolves into a künstlerroman, becoming the epitome of artistic maturation. We watch Kozelek watching—no, studying—each of the members of Zeppelin. It is a lonely, threadbare song, at times verging on suicide note. At the end of the song, he tells us:

I got a friend [Ivo Watts-Russel] who lives in the desert outside Santa Fe / I’m going to visit him this Saturday… / It’s been fifteen years since I last saw him / He’s the man who signed me back in 1992 / And I’m going to go there and tell him face-to-face ‘thank you’ / for discovering my talent so early / for helping me along in this beautiful musical world I was meant to be in

I remember, several years ago, spending long weekends in Kozelek’s Akron, then driving home to Pittsburgh reflecting on the place I was leaving behind, wishing I had an album that could serve as an intelligent and limbic Ohioan atlas, hoping I had something as robust as Benji to carry me over the state line. Listening to it now, as my car limps around Tucson’s desert, there is this inevitability that I will someday let Benji carry me over the state line to New Mexico to thank Ivo Watts-Russel as well.

“When anything close to me at all in the world died / to my heart forever it would be tied”

1. Carissa
From the album’s start, Kozelek makes no bones about this being another Ohio album. In “Carissa,” he’s “gonna go to Ohio” where he’ll “give and get some hugs” for the first of many deaths on this album. After some memories about his little second cousin Carissa, who “burned to death in a freak accident fire” (followed by a quick lineage lesson: “same as her uncle / who was my grandfather”), the reckoning begins. About two-and-a-half minutes into Kozelek’s slow baritone voice, not unlike Eddie Vedder’s of Pearl Jam, harmony and melody surface. By the end of the song, Kozelek is in a round with a companion voice. This is one of the more beautiful songs evocative of Ohioan landscape since The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio” or The National’s “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”8.7
2. I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love
This song will make your mother’s next missed call anxiety-provoking. Even so, it’s not an anxious song. The same four arpeggios are repeated lovingly as Kozelek sings a ballad about his mother. Considering all the death he faces on this album, it’s a necessary pledge of gratitude for the life she’s given to him. It feels preparatory too, as if he is conjuring the courage he suspects he’ll lack when she dies. Sprinkles of mandolin or prepared guitar adorn the last four measures of arpeggio. 9.5
3. Truck Driver
Despite it harboring all the verisimilitude of the other songs, the narrative arc is a bit more romantic here than in other songs. Kozelek admits some songs are more fictional than others, the memories more fanciful. This song has a tinge of judgment (“redneck that he was / burning trash in the yard”), and so, I can’t help but think Kozelek is allowing his autobiographical appetite for Domino’s pizza, fried frog legs, and KFC funeral catering to project a Midwest gothic affect. The arpeggios are more trancelike in this track. Apropos the aura of the record, Kozelek is playing guitar after the funeral for his family. This image, a guitar slung around his shoulder at a cemetery, sticks with me for the next three songs.7.3
4. Dogs
This track is Kozelek’s chronological (rather than alphabetical) Little Black Book. It is angry hymnal blues—an agitated William Elliot Whitmore or tempered Cobain singing “Lake of Fire.” The lyrics combine sexual anecdotes, fantasies too pathetic to be fabricated (“I went down on them both at Amber’s place / we were drunk as skunks and high on Darvon / they gave me a bath / and I stumbled on home”), with base sexual desires (“when you lose control of how good it feels to cum”) to deliver some cautionary message about rejection (“now I was the one who got their heart broke”). The profundity is muted by the uncomfortable call-and-response (its sinister attributes are less self-conscious than, say, the Decemberists’ “The Rake’s Song”), and Kozelek’s grating timbre—he abandons his natural baritone here—becomes like that of Ryan Sollee from The Builders and Butchers: wicked. “Dogs’” momentum is derived from the palm muted quarter notes and percussive crescendo, all culminating with a few bent notes and climactic tambourine.7.1
5. Pray for Newtown
This song just makes me shake my head. It’s an important move for the themes to globalize, to give credence to those that have grieved loved ones in a more public way, but the intimacy that drives this record is displaced by the allusion to public killers: Anders Breivik (Christian camp in Utøya, Norway), James Holmes (movie theatre in Aurora, CO), Jacob Roberts (shopping mall in Portland, OR), and Adam Lanza (elementary school in Newtown, CT). Unlike Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” this song does not psychologize or emotionalize its subjects. While some accuse Stevens of fetishizing the killer, Kozelek does just the opposite. He regurgitates sentiments proliferated by virtually all news circuits that aren’t sympathetic with the NRA. It provides contrast for the very private grief Kozelek experiences throughout the rest of the record, perhaps even suggests ways that sociologically shape his coping and understanding of personal tragedy. I don’t have the sense, though, that Kozelek was trying to demonstrate how impersonal such nation-shaking events can be, but that is the unfortunate relative effect. When put into the context of the whole album, it reminds me of Josef Stalin’s quote about the death of one man being a tragedy while the death of millions is a statistic. Kozelek is in New Orleans when he learns of Newtown, and Kozelek responds: “I ain’t one to pray but I am one to sing and play.” He talks about writing a letter to the guy in Newtown, and directly addresses the listener in a didactic moment to encourage them to, on Christmas, “take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.” He sits us at our tables with our families as we’re stuffing our faces, a cheap, clichéd guilt trip. 6.8
6. Jim Wise
This track opens, I think, with resonator guitar that sounds like a music box, tuned teeth plucking off raised pins, or maybe it’s a pleasant hurdy-gurdy. Either way, the production is like that of M. Ward’s Transistor Radio, static and fragile. This song is about a day Kozelek spent with his father, bringing Panera Bread to his father’s friend, Jim Wise, who’s on house arrest. Panera is a banal commercial space Kozelek associates with his father throughout the album. The slow singsong ditty tells about Jim, who killed his wife and is fated for prison. This song does have the psychological appeal inherent to “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” (see above). It not quite interlocutory or voyeuristic, but it is eerily observational as Jim strokes his Amish beard. A bright red cardinal is perched on the empty birdbath in the backyard, and one cannot help but imagine Jim’s wife returning. It seems no mistake that this is Ohio’s state bird. When I’m unable to stomach all eleven grisly tracks, I start here, truncating Benji to EP proportions.9.4
7. I Love My Dad
This is one of the most playful tracks on Benji. The verses, while still autobiographical, also serve as a polite male-centric compendium of archetypal American blue-collar mores, harkening “Your kid/my kid” bumper stickers, extrapolating the joke into decades-later portraits. Again, Kozelek feels capable of judgment here, but narrowly averts it (When my kid’s eighteen / he’ll probably be out there chasing his dreams / and when your kid’s twenty-two / he’ll have an internship at a law firm / and hey, that’s OK too). There is some self-parody in this song with the insistent blues rhythm, the mention of the guitar his dad bought him from Sear’s followed by ornate pentatonic practice, and general Springsteen machismo (there are tropes of father teaching son to fight and the two of them watching professional wrestling). Kozelek sings “I Love My Dad” over a flash choir chorus. This range is what separates “I Love My Dad” from the mother companion piece earlier on the album. “I love my dad” evolves into “I love you, Dad,” and this direct address to his father suggests the apology he issues is actual and incontrovertible.9.7
8. I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same
Clocking in at ten minutes, thirty-one seconds, “IWTFTSRTS” is the closest you’ll get to a Kozelekian opus. The guitar duo is comprised of one who faithfully thumbs bass notes as the other fingerpicks ethereal high-octave arpeggios. When contrasting this ornateness (think Iron and Wine’s “Naked As We Came”) with Kozelek’s steady voice—at least 90% of this lyrically dense song is sung in highly reverbed A-flat—Sun Kil Moon’s depth becomes apparent. The voice exists in the physical space the song creates, feeling small within it as more tragedy ensues: a friend falls off a moped and dies; a girl from his remedial class gets in an accident and dies; his grandmother—you guessed it—dies. As if through a sieve, Kozelek calls attention to the most melancholic moments from the eponymous Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains the Same, braiding it with the personal narratives. His favorite moments are “Rain Song,” “Bron-Yr-Aur,” and “No Quarter,” an overt way of suggesting artistic influence, but what it lacks in subtlety is mesmerizing in the way time and space are collapsed, and we are suddenly watching Kozelek as a boy in a Canton theatre watching the film or later reencountering it in his San Francisco apartment and taking notes-cum-lyrics on it. Kozelek assures us he has always been sensitive (“When anything close to me at all in the world died / to my heart forever it would be tied”) and gentle (“I was never a schoolyard bully / it was only one incident and it has always eaten at me / wherever you are, that poor kid / I’m so sorry”). There are occasional key changes in which it seems as if Kozelek is leaving us, ghostly ascendant echoes swallowing his voice, but he comes back, each time more candid. A rare Kozelek falsetto reminds us of his repertoire in this most serious of moments as he croons: “I’ll go to my grave with my melancholy / and my ghost will echo my sentiments for all of eternity.” The mandolin/prepared guitar from the first song, “Carissa,” returns as a coda in this piece.9.8
9. Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes
Bass notes swell beneath high reflecting nylon-string notes; the guitar duo is more anxious here, though, as if tracing the titular character’s pentagram tattoo. The vocals become reflective here as well, a technique repeated in the last verse of “Ben’s My Friend,” an anxiety-provoking polyvocalism, which threatens to make the lyrics incomprehensible. This song is more successful at globalizing the themes than “Pray For Newtown” as an infamous crew—Ayatollah Khomeini, James Gandolfini, Ronald Regan, and Jim Jones—convenes just as San Francisco serial killer Richard Ramirez dies of natural causes. While it is tempting to read the title ironically (Ramirez dies of natural causes, though his victims do not), its purpose feels more literal. It is about the anxiety of aging. Kozelek’s own nagging prostrate and back pains are mentioned as he calls attention to the fact that Benji’s drummer, Steve Shelley, is the same age as James Gandolfini (the actor who played Jersey capo Tony Soprano) who prematurely died of a heart attack in 2013. This anxiety is likely accentuated by the unspoken fact that Tim Mooney, drummer on previous Sun Kil Moon albums, died in 2012 at age 53. By the end, this track has accumulated more amplification than the others. Eerie reflective solo notes carry like searchlights in a dissonant Modest Mouse chantey. 9.4
10. Micheline
It’s reminiscent of John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” in its key and nostalgia, but as is characteristic of Benji, it’s hyperreal. This song is a triptych featuring Micheline, Brett, and Kozelek’s grandma, each verse providing an extended memory of each person before he/she passes. The guitar sounds like that of an old English ballad with Chris Connolly’s sporadic piano rippling in the background. Micheline, a handicapped neighbor whom Kozelek used to bathe with, is scammed by a deadbeat later in her life. Next, Brett, a childhood friend, dies, leaving behind a wife and a son. Last, Kozelek’s grandma passes away; among the memories of visiting her in Los Angeles, Kozelek sees Benji in the theatre. Despite its three parts, over half of the song is devoted to Kozelek’s grandma (“he heard she had a hard life”). The way death is handled in this song—quietly, compartmentally—suggests Kozelek has developed a coping mechanism to feel less overwhelmed by death.9.6
11. Ben’s My Friend
At first, it reminded me of a less poppy, yuppie sequel to Everlast’s “What It’s Like.” By mid-song, though, the banality of Kozelek’s midlife crisis is captivating. In it, he reprises the mother and father personas from earlier in the album; he captures the ennui of upper-middle class shopping excursions and appetites; he is sunken by the relativity of success (Ben Gibbard from Postal Service is bustin’ moves while Kozelek is a lowly spectator, his legs hurting). It has all the sincerity of the first ten tracks, but is more palatable due to the gamboling pace of the guitar. I’ll admit I have a strong Destroyer bias (I’m still waiting to hear that Bejar was a cameo on this track after all), but it my affection for this song goes beyond: its compositional and lyrical depth makes the restraint in earlier songs on this album seem like an aesthetic excuse to refrain from excellence. While Benji is one of the finest albums I have encountered in the last few years, its pervasive somberness (jettisoned only in tracks like “I Love My Dad” and “Ben’s My Friend”) means my loyal listening will inevitably wane by spring. 10.0
Written by Lawrence Lenhart
Lawrence Lenhart received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, where he was the editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. He is the recipient of two Foundation Awards, two Taube Awards, and the Laverne Harrell Clark Award in Fiction.

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