Sunday, May 4, 2014

Album Review: Sun Kil Moon – Benji (2014)

Ex-Red House Painter Mark Kozelek is someone who knows how to spin a good yarn. On Benji, his sixth album under the Sun Kil Moon banner, Kozelek spins aplenty, and the album is very much an exercise in old school style storytelling.

Benji is personal, intimate, and tragic; all stuff that – when done well – can touch the soul quite unlike anything else. And Kozelek does it very well here. So much of Benji’s beauty lies in its simplicity.

Adopting for the most part a basic man-guitar-songbook template, Benji is chock full of tales and anecdotes about life, love, and death, and it’s fair to say there’s also a great deal of human tragedy to be found across its hour-long duration.
As with past work, Kozelek continually comes up with unusual angles and odd lyrical frameworks to work with – see mass murder, mercy killing, fire, rock’n’roll, childhood, loving, and fucking … just for starters.

But it’s the devil-in-the-detail intimacy that ultimately makes Benji something special.

The album opens with 'Carissa', a song about trying to make sense of the seemingly mysterious fire-related death of a second cousin. It feels like a cathartic quest for some kind of closure through words and music, and as an opening track it works a little bit like a statement of intent.

The death theme is explored further on 'Truck Driver'; another fire, another lost relative … yep, it seems there’s been an awful lot of bizarre stuff going on Kozelek’s wider world.

But there’s quiet reflection and melancholy too – 'I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same' checks in at over ten minutes, which is probably a little bit too long, but it’s an extended tale about growing up, getting older, and moving on. It’s also about the notion that whatever happens, as life changes, we stay fundamentally the same people on the inside – there’s a point where Kozelek sings about how certain music of Led Zeppelin makes the same impact on him now as it did way back when he first heard it. So it’s also about how music can stand as a marker over time, for memory and reflection and it is something I could strongly relate to.

There’s a first sexual encounter on 'Dogs', and subject matter like perceptions of beauty and acceptance of “difference” are explored on 'Micheline', one of the albums highlights.

Song titles like 'I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love' and 'I Love My Dad' are self-explanatory, yet no less heartfelt or haunting for their obviousness. Kozelek’s vocal seems to find a slightly softer lilt when singing about matters closest to the heart.
'Pray For Newtown' is pretty close to being the pick of a pretty decent batch; it’s mostly about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012, where 26 people died (naturally!). It’s an intense four minute lament, utterly compelling, despite its gruesome subject matter … or rather, perhaps because of it. Referencing several other instances of mass murder in the song, Kozelek has us reflecting on our own good fortune, placement, or luck … call it what you will. We’re asked to spare a little change in the form of some empathy for the victims of the horror, and for the families left behind.

The death theme continues (surprise!) with 'Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes'; Ramirez being a killer dubbed “the nightstalker” during a reign of terror in Southern California, and the haunting delay/echo FX used on the vocal add a slightly spooky edge to this track, as Kozelek somehow manages to summon bite-sized portions of the evil and darkness that surrounded Ramirez himself.

Musically, this is a fairly sparse and stripped back affair, mostly acoustic guitar-based, with the odd subtle layer of additional instrumentation popping up here and there. It’s only when we get to the closer 'Ben’s My Friend' (about fellow muso Ben Gibbard) that there’s any real hint of Kozelek seeking out a fuller sound – with additional bass and horns/sax – but even at that, the closing track feels a little at odds with the rest of the material, and I’m not sure it works so well.

That’s a minor quibble, and if I also have a few small issues surrounding arrangement and production, the true measure of Benji’s worth is in the words and in the storytelling. And in the album’s ability to touch and move as you journey across its eleven tracks.

Despite some of the dark subject matter, there’s something distinctly life affirming and refreshing about this album, and Benji is so close to perfect it might just be a very early contender for album of the year. Let’s wait and see.


Here’s ‘Pray For Newtown’:

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