You have to be in a certain mindset to digest singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek’s sixth album as Sun Kil Moon, Benji, which was released on February 11, 2014.
Benji is a record that deals with topics like unexpected death, and how its ripple is felt across the framework of people who may have barely known the person in question.
It is also a record that anticipates death, and exposes in full detail the bare framework of family and friendship.
Kozelek explores the most intimate workings of the relationships that have defined his life, or the ones that have stuck with him the most. He gives you unprecedented access to the facts, to his memories.
In terms of brutal honesty, it probably puts any other record you’ve ever heard to shame. Sometimes, the honesty and the context don’t gel very well. But when they do, Benji is absolutely devastating.
The album’s opener, “Carissa,” masterfully lays the entire album on the line. Over a gorgeous, pulsating acoustic riff, Kozelek speaks of the second cousin who gave the song its name, and her tragic fate.
He talks about feeling concern for her when he saw her “fifteen, pregnant and running wild,” then failing to even recognize her at a family funeral years later. Kozelek wakes up one morning to the news that Carissa had died in a freak accident involving an exploding aerosol can.
Kozelek flies to Ohio “to get a look at those I’m connected by blood and see how it all may have shaped me.” As an opener, it’s a stunning, gut-wrenching exploration of death, family, and the relationship between the two.
Having set the stage for the strong theme of family that runs throughout Benji, Kozelek cuts even deeper on the album’s next two tracks. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” is fairly self-explanatory. But, sarcasm aside, it’s a song that is honest in its feelings in a way that few other songwriters would even consider attempting.
Kozelek discusses his mother’s advancing age, and what will happen to him when she is not there anymore. He tears himself down to nothing, forecasting himself as being unable to emotionally cope with her imminent mortality.
The heaviness continues unabated on “Truck Driver.” Forecasted by a line in “Carissa” that describes the circumstances around her death as the “same as my uncle,” Kozelek tells of his uncle’s death on his birthday. Also, insanely enough (both stories are completely true), killed by an exploding aerosol can in the trash, it almost serves as a prequel to “Carissa.” The same themes run throughout this first trilogy of songs, and give them a staggering emotional weight.
The up-tempo “Dogs” gives the listener just a bit of humorous brevity. Over more urgent acoustic playing, Kozelek narrates, in entirely explicit detail that doesn’t leave the slightest thing to the imagination, the formative romances of his youth. For once the no-holds-barred honesty is a bit lighthearted, even if the song itself is unremarkable.
But the heaviness returns in full force with “Pray For Newtown.” Kozelek speaks of his reactions to famous massacres that have occurred throughout his lifetime. He sings of how, after the initial shock of the incident wears off, these incidents usually fade quickly from the minds of the average person. This is one instance where the heaviness gets a bit over the top. It makes the emotional weight of the album almost too much to bear; and seems a bit unneeded.
The loving, tender “Jim Wise” doesn’t back off the pedal either. Speaking of a man who recently mercy-killed his wife and unsuccessfully attempted suicide, its yet another emotional punch. Its melody though, is rewarding and beautiful enough to keep you trucking through.
Here’s “Richard Ramirez Died Today”
Clocking in at over ten minutes, “I Watched The Film The Song Remains the Same,” is the record’s show-stopper; a song that dwarfs all of the album’s other offerings. Humorous, regretful, morose, tragic, and contemplative, the song covers a million miles emotionally.
Telling a very loose assemblage of different stories that have occurred during his life, Kozelek is utterly captivating as a narrator. Over all of the various, alternating vignettes is the brisk acoustic finger-picking that is almost the song’s sole musical factor. It is a song that merges all of Benji’s innumerable emotional roads into one, incredibly cohesive and extraordinary whole.
After that, the winding “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” the sentimental “Micheline,” and the upbeat “Ben’s My Friend” almost do not matter. To their credit, all three are great in their own ways, but after “Song Remains the Same,” they feel mostly inconsequential. Kozelek had already said all he needed to say to make Benji a masterpiece.
To say the least, Benji isn’t dentists’ chair music. It is unrelenting in its emotional attack, making you contemplate and look inside of yourself just as much as Kozelek himself does.
But in its ambition, honesty, and execution, it is a staggering achievement. It puts into words universal emotions everyone has felt or will feel in the future. It fearlessly tackles the most unimaginable situations everyone will eventually face, and does it within the beautiful musical framework of a dusty vision of America that continues to disappear. But, even if that America is disappearing, and these emotions are the ones none of us ever want to face, Kozelek is determined against all odds to bring them vividly to life. On Benji, he does so flawlessly.
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