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.

Comments (52)
  1. Already shared my thoughts about Benji in last week’s AotW, so I’m just going to say Eric Church is the Kanye of country and DeVille’s monogenre has conquered another realm. This is Nashville’s true or Beyonce or Yeezus moment.

  2. I lost it the second time through “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” when he hit the line “but mostly I’ll miss being able to call her and talk.”

    Befitting its writerly nature, this album rewards multiple listens in a very literary sense: you start picking up lyrics that reference the events and subjects of other songs, and some very rich overarching themes begin to emerge from out of the disparate stories. Easily the most rewarding listen I’ve enjoyed in several years.

  3. Y’all should take some time to check out his collaborative albums with Album Leaf and Desertshore from last year, which provide a good run-up to what Koz achieved with this one.

  4. Can’t agree at all about Red House Painters, who were even better than Sun Kil Moon for my money. Dour, bleary, turgid? Definitely not.

    • I wouldn’t disagree with those descriptors, actually, but the thing is that that’s not a bad thing. Like, come on, this song is just GOOD:

    • I don’t know. That was definitely the most dour, bleary and turgid version of “Silly Love Songs” I ever heard.

      • And again, that version of that song is still awesome

        • You can only carry the “melancholy torch” for so long. I love Red House Painters but I definitely admire and respect Kozeleks’s decision to move his songwriting away from such heavy clouds. I didn’t think it would be possible but I definitely prefer his Sun Kil Moon work now. Love the new album, which is another departure for him, stylistically. And it seems that he acknowledges that melancholy (and even how he used it to shape his music) in the song where he thanks the guy who first signed him…sorry, haven’t put titles to songs in my head yet…only just listened yesterday, but after reading this review I am itching to listen again. RHP crybaby song for me is “Bubble”. Always makes me think of my dad.

  5. I still haven’t liked anything Sun Kil Moon has done as much as Red House Painters, but whatever. This album probably has my two favorite Sun Kil Moon songs yet, “Carissa” and “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same”, which is probably my favorite musical moment so far this year. Maybe the rest of the album will grow on me, but it might just not be something I’m into. That said I can’t deny the talent Kozelek displays and how brilliantly arranged some of the songs are.
    (Also, nitpicky note, the new Katy B album is “Little Red”, not “Red.”)

  6. The Lego Movie soundtrack was robbed.

  7. I know its been discussed to death already, but “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” is just an overwhelming piece of music. I’ve never really been much of a Sun Kil Moon or Red House Painters fan, but that song is jaw dropping.

  8. This is his best work in my opinion. I absolutely love this album.

  9. Kinda reminds me of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band just from a catharsis perspective.

    • I don’t know if I agree with that. I mean, there is a pretty broad spectrum of cathartic self-confessional albums, and Plastic Ono Band is so angry while Benji is very resigned. I think that’s a function of Kozelek being almost twenty years older than Lennon was when he recorded Plastic Ono.

      However, I can absolutely see Benji reminding someone of the imaginary album John Lennon would have recorded around 1992. It’s not too hard to imagine Lennon releasing a raw, self-confessional album about growing old and facing mortality that would fit in there nicely with Bone Machine, Harvest Moon, Time Out of Mind and others. And it would be great.

      [Mark David Chapman remains such a fucking cunt.]

  10. I’m from central Ohio so maybe I have additional context but this is simply one of the most crushingly beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

  11. Also, I just want to say “Carissa, when I first I saw you you were a lovely child/And the last time I saw you, you were 15 and pregnant and running wild” is one of the most perfect, instantly iconic opening lines to an album in recent memory.

  12. “anyone here the song dogs of this record?” – a perverted teen with a wry smile as he runs into a cornfield clutching a copy of the catcher in the rye

  13. I completely agree with this aotw to the point that i’m a very certain this may be my album of the year, even this early in the year. I grew up in a cleveland and spent most of my weekends at grandmother’s house in canton, ohio where i think kozalek grew up and his family lived around . having all those nostalgic images of the town where i’m pretty sure most of these songs are set and having a ton of family there really deepened the album. i don’t think i’ve been this happy and proud to have been from ohio in a very long time.

  14. Everything this cat has ever done feels important. I doubt the word “trite” has ever been applied to his work in any way.

  15. Disappointed there’s no love for my pick of the week’s best album: AJ Davila’s Terror Amor.
    Unbelievable album from ex Davila 666 member. Again, E P I C.

  16. This is coming from a long time RHP and SKM fan: Eh. Listening to it on repeat today made me realize I don’t really care for him any more. Not saying it’s bad, maybe I’ve just moved on. I wanted to love it.

    • Me too, fartbasket, me too. I’m happy that Mark’s getting some exposure and acclaim for this new record, but I’ll be listening to his old ones.

    • The opposite happened to me. For some reason I just never latched on to “Admiral Fell Promises”. Great album but I figured I was growing away from Kozelek’s work. The Desertshore record came out and I still haven’t listened to all but one song (which I liked). The slew of live solo records came out in rapid succession, and I never have much cared for his live performance style. Found that I was almost totally indifferent to “Among the Leaves”…but then I hear “Benji” last night, and even though it’s kind of jarring to one who is accustomed to the way he sang and wrote on “Ghosts of the Great Highway” and “April”, it still just hit me like a ton of bricks how awesome it really is. From the very start I found I cared for the guy doing the narrating (whether the events are all from Kozelek’s life or not) and there was never a point through the course of the 11 songs that I wasn’t totally engrossed and never, not even for a few second, never bored. The only thing I was concerned about was how the songs would hold up on their own, out of the context of the album’s entirety. I’ll figure that out eventually but for now I plan to listen from beginning to end many times.

  17. This album is the most ambitious Panera Bread advertisement I’ve heard so far.

  18. Rust Cohl loves this album.

  19. This is similar to Bon Iver only I can actually understand what this guy is saying, and I can’t possibly mean that in a more respectful way to both. They get to the same enlightenment in ways totally dissimilar yet oddly find a familiar balance to each other. This album is a gift that will keep giving with repeat listens.

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    • I think that that assumes that poetry has to be in the elegance of the words or in some turn of phrase. I think there’s plenty of poetry in the prosaic nature of the lyrics on this song, and on the album–he pays tribute to her by telling us about her, by remembering her for everyone, even if he didn’t know her.

      • I think there’s plenty of emotional beauty in what Kozelek writes here but not much poetry. I just don’t really get a deeper meaning than what’s plainly said in the songs I’ve heard (to be fair, I haven’t heard the entire album yet, but most of it).

    • You have an overly rigid concept of what poetry is.

  21. I guess the argument can be made that the aesthetic has been done by Tame Impala and UMO, but man oh man I’m loving the Temples’ album.

    I’ve also never listened to SKM so I’ll change that now.

  22. These lyrics cut straight to the point. They’re so real. I looked up some of the details given in Carissa.

    I implore you to listen to this album. It’s an incredible experience, Kozelek lets you right inside his head. This is one of the bravest albums I’ve ever heard.

  23. I really loved how recurring references are made to particular events throughout the album e.g. his Grandma’s death, meeting the friend in Sante Fe. I really appreciated how these moments and events are continually fleshed out and given more depth over the course of the album, instead of simply devoting a song to it.

  24. Mark Kozelek and Mark Eitzel are the Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton of gloomy indie rock.

  25. First time I cried was when I wrote a raving review of this for my blog and a bunch of people responded saying I spelled “Kil” with two “l”s and I felt like a real stupid.

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