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”