February 12, 2014

Test Spin: Benji, Sun Kil Moon

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Some might be tempted to describe Sun Kil Moon’s (Mark Kozelek, formerly of Red House Painters) latest album Benji as stream-of-conscious — some kind of Twitter-meets-midlife-crisis-meets-folk mash up. But to call Benji stream of conscious is to totally underestimate the thought and purposefulness that goes into making this beautifully sad and poignant album. Instead, these small, intimate details surround the omnipresent wanton death and bring life and a touch of melancholy humor to the proceedings.

Kozelek, 49, is dealing with a lot of death and reminders of his own mortality, and on almost every song he sings about it. From the children of Newtown to his grandmother to his “little second cousin Carissa,” dozens of characters, good and bad, find their ultimate exit in Kozelek’s tales. He spares no bluntness and utilizes no metaphor, he simply offers up his unadulterated soul for your viewing. Rarely accompanied by anything more than a quiet acoustic guitar, Kozelek’s handsome voice floats, detailing concise stories and colorful details. Rooted in verifiable truth, it’s hard to imagine a more personal album. Benji plays like a diary, and listening feels almost perversely invasive. But Kozelek never blinks, he simply shares.

Within the first three songs, we have two seperate family deaths due to an exploding aerosol can and a song about the relatively imminent death of his 75 year old mother. As heavy as these songs play, there is no effort to make them more palatable. The first tale, “Carissa,”  is devoted to Kozelek’s second cousin, who died while burning trash at 35 in his hometown.   Kozelek was not close to her (she was “15 and pregnant” the last time he saw her), but her death reminds him of the tragic randomness of death. So in an effort to understand, he sings about going home to Northern Ohio, to “give and get some hugs.” There is no hyperbole, just stark sadness. Shockingly, on “Truck Driver,” Kozelek’s retired uncle dies the same way, “in a fire on his birthday,” no less.

The entire album plays as quaint, but it is not that the subjects are simple. Rather, they are authentic and unfettered by the outside influences and expectations that would generally make such a dire album off-putting. Kozelek never reaches too far, staying grounded and offering stories that could well be ones own. “Pray for Newtown,” an impassioned plea for others to remember the dead, impressively never loses the scope of his narrative. Instead, he recollects his experience with the various mass killings of his lifetime and shares the pain he felt. It, like many of the songs, is strangely cathartic.

In Benji, misery can even be caused by the absence of death. “Jim Wise” is the most dispiriting song on the album, detailing a retired warehouse worker who mercy-kills his wife of 45 years — the victim of a triple aneurysm — at a hospital and then attempts suicide, only to have the gun jam. Jim is a friend of Kozelek’s dad, and the father-son pair visit Jim, who is under house arrest. “Jim Wise killed his wife out of love for her,” Kozelek mourns. Exemplifying the minute details, Kozelek casually mentions that he and his dad bring food from Panera Bread, and that Jim has a long white beard, listens to The Doors, eats a lot of baked beans and has an old Corvette. The details humanize Jim and make his predicament even more abhorrent.

There are a few songs which are not explicitly about death. “Dogs” details Kozalek’s sexual history with names and places. What starts with his first kiss at five rapidly gets to “Mary-Ann was my first fuck/she slided down my legs and oh-my-god she could suck.” Of course, Mary-Ann would soon leave him for a “guy with a truck,” in the cruel continuation of a cycle in which Kozelek fails to stay with the women he beds.

Benji closer “Ben is my Friend” is the closest we get to rock. It finds Kozalek struggling to finish his album and dealing with a “middle-aged thing” while he buys lamp shades and eats blue crab cakes. He then goes to a Postal Service concert to see his friend, band member Ben Gibbard. The concert reminds Kozalek of how old he is and how much younger and more successful Ben is. But, just in time for the end of the album, Kozalek has a change of heart, deciding “Ben’s my friend and I know he gets it” and getting back to the studio. It is not a happy song, but it is a small victory in a sea of loss and disappointment.

While this all may sound like the culmination of a mid-life crisis, that term fails to describe the discontent. Instead, these are some of the unshakeable doubts and fears that we all carry. The events of the album have a magnificent timelessness, with schoolyard regrets and teenage milestones occupying a plane with recent deaths and professional failures. Instead of a crisis of age, Benji is a crisis of humanity.