Album Of The Week: Sun Kil Moon Benji
If you spend enough time with the new Sun Kil Moon album Benji, there is every chance that you will end up crying sooner or later. The first time I misted up to the album, it was during a relatively innocuous moment. “I Love My Dad” is one of the jauntier songs on an album full of haunted, death-obsessed songs, but it’s still the one that did it to me. And it did it to me because of the moment where Mark Kozelek (the man who is Sun Kil Moon; it’s not a band) sings, “When I was five, I came home crying from kindergarten cause they sat me next to an albino / My dad said, ‘Son, everyone’s different, you gotta love ‘em all equally’ / He said, ‘You gotta love all people — pink, red, black, or brown’ / Then just after dinner, he played me the album They Only Come Out At Night by Edgar Winter.” I heard that album a few times before it occurred to me that Winter, the ’70s rock shredder, was albino, and that playing the album was Kozelek’s dad’s clumsy attempt to demonstrate that all people have worth. I cried because this is such a deeply human, fumbling, potentially embarrassing attempt to show your kid a massively important truth. I cried because I’m the same way; if either of my kids ever does the same thing, I’ll probably play them the album Shadows On The Sun by Brother Ali. I also cried because Kozelek sings elsewhere in the song that his father would beat the shit out of him when he was a kid but that the two of them have made peace with it over the years. Benji is full of complicated moments like that: Scenes where tragedy and dumb, inhospitable human behavior and familial love and childhood memory all intersect. It’s an impossibly rich and beautifully written album that drips with loss and regret and love. And after listening to it constantly for a month or two, I feel like I’m only beginning to appreciate it.
I’m also only beginning to appreciate Kozelek. For years, he led the Red House Painters, a dour and bleary rock band whose baritone heartbeak koans always felt impenetrable to me — a depressive, turgid rock band who roamed the earth at a time when the earth wasn’t exactly hurting for bands like that. I wasn’t a fan of Kozelek until 2012’s Sun Kil Moon album Among The Leaves, an album less about romantic travails and more about confronting the kinda-sad reality that you’re an aging semi-successful musician who probably hit his career ceiling years ago. I imagine plenty of musicians feel the things Kozelek sang about on Among The Leaves, but few of them admit to them, and fewer still sing about them publicly, especially with the tossed-off cutting incisiveness that Kozelek brought. But if Among The Leaves represented an artistic leap for Kozelek, Benji hurtles him into the great beyond. The album has beautifully crafted lyrics, absolutely lovely melodies, and smart arrangements, but it still feels like a tossed-off stream-of-consciousness dive into some very dark thoughts and feelings. It contemplates impossibly sad things on every song, and it does it in a no-big-deal conversational style that just makes its big truths ring clearer. There are big-name musicians on the album — Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelly on drums, Will Oldham singing on a few songs — but you only notice them if you’re listening for them, since the whole thing is built entirely around Kozelek’s craggy sing-speak and since the things he’s singing demand your attention no matter how many times you’ve listened.
You may have noticed that the lyric I quote above doesn’t really read as a song lyric. There’s barely any attention paid to meter or rhyme or rhythm. The song has basically no choruses; song structure isn’t really a concern here. And though Kozelek’s voice carries plenty of melody, those melodies feel almost improvised, like they were just the most natural ways to sing the lines he’d already written. There’s a self-consciousness to that writing, too; songs will reference the same events, with the understanding that you’ll know the flight he’s taking home to Ohio in one song is to go to the funeral he’s mentioning in another. Even the instrumentation has tiny jokes in it. Remembering learning to play guitar on the aforementioned “I Love My Dad,” Kozelek deadpans, “I still practice all the time, but not as much as Nels Cline,” before launching into a fluttery, jazzy, Cline-esque acoustic solo. On “Ben’s My Friend,” the last song, he sings about how he needs a last song for his album. In another universe, the Benji lyric sheet might work as a tiny, powerful short-story collection. But they probably work better as songs, partly because of those moments of musical allusion but also because hearing them in album form allows little moments to escape your notice at first and then to sneak up on you with later listens. The song “Jim Wise,” for instance, is an amiable lope about going to visit Kozelek’s dad’s friend, but everything changes when the context of the song dawns: Wise is at home because “Jim Wise mercy-killed his wife in a hospital at her bedside / Then he put a gun to his head, but it jammed and he didn’t die.”
Benji is full of killing, and most of it isn’t merciful. Some of the death is freak-accident stuff, impossible arbitrary catastrophe. The first song, “Carissa,” is about Kozelek’s second cousin, a 35-year-old woman who “burned to death” after an aerosol can exploded in her house. The third, “Truck Driver,” is about Kozelek’s uncle, who somehow died the exact same way. (Kozelek has confirmed that both stories are true.) On “Micheline,” Kozelek sings about watching a friend suffer an aneurism in front of him — an aneurism indirectly caused by the weird way he played guitar — and then about learning of that friend’s eventual death. Other deaths on the album aren’t accidents; they happen because terrible people want to be noticed. On “Pray For Newtown,” he recounts where he was when he heard about some recent massacres, most of them American, and he ends by zoning out on the kindergarten class full of kids murdered in Connecticut: “When your birthday comes and you’re feeling pretty good / Baking cakes and opening gifts and stuffing your mouth with food / Take a moment the children who lost their lives / And think of their families and how they mourn and cry.” (This would be a good point to start crying.) “Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes” remembers the fear Kozelek felt when the notorious serial killer was still at large, and that memory sends him down a wormhole, thinking about all the pettier, more everyday indignities suffered by the people in his neighborhood, and of the early-’80s sense that the world was falling apart. And still other deaths haven’t even happened yet, but Kozelek meditates on them because he knows they’re coming sooner or later and he knows they’ll destroy him; that’s what “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” is about.
Whereas Kozelek once sang about relationship-related despondency, that’s simply not a concern here. He mentions a girlfriend a few times, and he sounds satisfied in a low-key way on that score. And the one time he sinks back into old hookups, it’s with an aging man’s detachment. “Dogs” is a map of every big landmark in Kozelek’s sex life (“Maryanne was my first fuck / She’s slide down between my legs, and oh my god, she could suck”). But when it’s all over, he shrugs like it all barely mattered: “The nature of attraction cycles on and on and on / And nobody’s right, and nobody’s wrong / Our early life shapes the types to whom we are drawn / It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on.” That, right there is practically every love song ever written in a four-line capsule. And Kozelek moves right on from it because he has bigger and heavier things to sing about.
As with so much great writing, there’s a sharp specificity what Kozelek is singing about here, and that specificity helps to make it transcendent. I’ve never met Kozelek or any of the people he’s singing about, and I’ve never spent any time in Ohio, where many of these songs take place, except to drive across it. But he sings about these people and places and feelings and situations with such emotional intelligence and pointed focus that I can hear my own experiences in them. You’ll probably hear your own, too, if you fall deeply enough into the album. And then you’ll cry.
Benji is out now on Caldo Verde.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Eric Church’s badass rebel-country spazzout The Outsiders.
• Katy B’s searching starpower-driven dance-pop opus Red.
• Cibo Matto’s cosmopolitan reunion concept album Hotel Valentine.
• Tinariwen’s mesmeric Emmaar.
• Temples’ monolithic psych-rock debut Sun Structures.
• Thumpers’ giddy, joyous Galore.
• Total Slacker’s scabby grunge attack Slip Away.
• Disco Doom’s dark debut Numerals.
• The soundtrack to season three of Girls.
• The Endless Love soundtrack.
• The Lego Movie soundtrack.
• Speedy Ortiz’s Real Hair EP.
• Yumi Zouma’s self-titled EP.