|Sun Kil Moon — Benji [Limited Edition] (2014)|
Sun Kil Moon — Benji [Limited Edition]
♣ After Red House Painters, Mark Kozelek's second outlet for his melancholy, nocturnal, and wry songwriting.
Location: San Francisco, California
Album release: February 10, 2014
Record Label: Caldo Verde
01 Carissa (Mark Kozelek) 6:56
02 I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love (Mark Kozelek) 3:59
03 Truck Driver (Mark Kozelek) 3:56
04 Dogs (Mark Kozelek) 5:37
05 Pray for Newtown (Mark Kozelek) 4:08
06 Jim Wise (Owen Ashworth / Mark Kozelek) 3:34
07 I Love My Dad (Mark Kozelek) 6:16
08 I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same (Mark Kozelek) 10:31
09 Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes (Mark Kozelek) 5:35
10 Micheline (Mark Kozelek) 6:07
11 Ben's My Friend (Mark Kozelek) 5:17
01 Micheline (Live in 2013 at Aveiro, Portugal, Teatro Aveirense) 7:17
02 Richard Ramirez (Live in 2013 at Goteborg, Aweden, Stenhammarsalen) 4:55
03 I Love My Dad (Live in 2013 at Copenhagen, Denmark, Jazzhouse) 6:04
04 I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love (Live in 2013 at London, England, Sbe) 4:19
05 Truck Driver (Live in 2013 at Leamington Spa, , England, the Assembly) 4:10
Album Moods: Bittersweet Dreamy Intimate Poignant Reflective Atmospheric Refined Gentle Melancholy Sad Bleak Enigmatic Indulgent Literate Lonely Nocturnal Nostalgic Plaintive Restrained Romantic Searching Sensual Soft/Quiet Sophisticated Spacey Sparse Tender Warm Weary
Owen Ashworth Composer, Fender Rhodes
Brian Azer Sleeve Design
Keta Bill Vocals (Background)
Chris Connolly Fender Rhodes, Piano
Forrest Day Horn
Mark Kozelek Bass, Composer, Guitar, Lyricist, Photography, Producer, Vocals, Xylophone
Tim Lindsey Bass
Will Oldham Vocals (Background)
Steve Shelley Drums, Percussion
Nathan Winter Engineer
Jen Wood Vocals (Background)
By Ian Cohen; February 3, 2014; Score: 9.2
♣ There are 11 songs on Sun Kil Moon’s astonishing sixth LP Benji, and in nearly all of them, somebody dies. And that’s not including the ones where someone’s on the verge of death or seriously headed towards it. Toddlers die, teenagers die, adults die, and the elderly die. They die of natural causes and in freak accidents. People die alone and people die by the dozens — handicapped children, single parents, grandmothers, serial killers. They die out of mercy and die long before they’re due. Rednecks die as respected men and white collar kids die in disgrace. But more importantly, Mark Kozelek wants us to know that they all lived, loved, fought, fucked up, and often did the best they could, before he sets out to “find some poetry to make some sense of this and give some deeper meaning” to their tragedies. Turns out he doesn’t have to dig very far. Here, Kozelek does away with the metaphor and verbal obfuscation often used to distract an audience from their own joy, sadness, crippling failures, and small triumphs. If listeners find themselves unable to make it through Benji in one piece, it’s because Kozelek all but forces us to recognize how the most emotionally moving art can be mapped directly on to our own lives.
♣ This is a culmination of the jarring shift in Kozelek’s work that started with 2012’s Among the Leaves, an erratic, occasionally embarrassing, and fascinating tell-all about a life in music. Whereas early songwriting in Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon resulted in elegant, poetic lyrics that demanded a hardbound, 256–page compilation, all of a sudden he was giving us songs about justifying a case of VD to his girlfriend, picking up water from 7–Eleven, and battling his own boredom with songwriting, all wrapped in songs with titles like “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. the Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man”. It wasn’t a midlife crisis, exactly; it was more like watching your parents negotiate Facebook for the first time, equally excited and overwhelmed that they can share their daily minutiae but unaware of what to keep to themselves.
♣ Benji steps away from the focus on process in favor of songs that elevate exceedingly personal stories into universal displays of humanity. Presenting himself as no wiser, empathetic, or understanding than any of its subjects or his audience, Kozelek has crafted an album that anyone can feel but also one that, paradoxically, is filled with songs that wouldn’t make sense if covered by anybody else. The opening “Carissa” is a portal towards the world Kozelek inhabits throughout Benji, all of it painfully real and subject to nature’s laws even as time seems frozen within it. The first line of Benji lays out the record’s confrontational realism: “Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child/ And the last time I saw you, you were 15 and pregnant and running wild.” We learn a few things about her: she’s Mark Kozelek’s second cousin, and in the 20 years since Kozelek’s seen her, she’s had two kids, settled into a nursing job in a nondescript Ohio town and, in general, gotten her shit together — a rarity in a Mark Kozelek song. And we also know that she dies in a fire after an aerosol can explodes in the trash.
♣ That alone doesn’t make “Carissa” stand out, not in the catalog of one of our most prolific miserablists. But unlike Caroline or Elaine or Katy, Carissa has an effect on Kozelek that feels biological, that she’s a part of Kozelek’s flesh and blood and not just a muse, and he renders her story with detail that would be stunning for a novelist, let alone a songwriter. The chorus is sweetly sung and absolutely crushing: “Carissa was 35/ You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” He’s right, that shouldn’t happen. Except the same exact thing happened to his uncle, which is detailed two songs later on “Truck Driver”.
♣ Which leads to an important critical consideration: Do these songs resonate because we understand them to be true stories? We have little reason to doubt Kozelek’s authenticity, as Benji is full of proper nouns and historical facts that check out: Google some of the specificities mentioned during his eviscerating sexual inventory of “Dogs” and you find that there is indeed a Tangier and Red Lobster near the Erie Canal in Akron. When he calls his mom in “Micheline” and learns of his friend Brett’s death in 1999, he mentions booking a movie role — as the bassist from Stillwater in Almost Famous. At one point, he sings that “the Sopranos guy died at 51/ That’s the same age as the guy who’s coming to play drums,” and wouldn’t you know, former Sonic Youth stickman Steve Shelley, who played on the record, turns 52 in June. Kozelek’s reaction to both aerosol can–related deaths in his family are basically, “you can’t make this shit up.” But what if he did make this shit up? If so, Benji arguably becomes an even more impressive record — the debilitating emotional response created by “Carissa” and “Truck Driver” are undeniably real, and if the stories are fiction, the guy did his homework.
♣ Regardless of the real names and real events used throughout, nothing feels exploitative, unnecessary, or cruel the way some of the songs on Among the Leaves could. Nor is Benji subject to the navel-gazing self–importance that usually accompanies an aging musician making their “mortality” album. Despite most of it taking place in rural Ohio, people like Carissa and his uncle (“redneck that he was”) are never used as a stand-in for some salt–of–the–earth Middle American archetype or a cheap way to make some dippy point about us all being interconnected and carpe diem.
♣ Instead, Benji trusts in the complexity and power ingrained in anyone’s life story rather than using them for some grand statement that glorifies Kozelek’s own perspective. Most importantly, his storytelling has sharpened considerably. Befitting someone who watches an absurd amount of boxing, Kozelek’s prose has taken on pugilistic bent, where he can go five minutes or more dancing around, softening the listener with sharp jabs before landing a catastrophic body blow. This is best exhibited on the song “Micheline”, which has three acts linked by nothing but their end result, and the one where his grandmother dies is the least tragic.
♣ This is obviously brutal stuff, its pacing, themes, and structure having more in common with cinema or literature than pop music. But Benji is still a piece of entertainment and it’s a pleasure to listen to on that level. For one thing, it’s the most musically diverse and sonically direct album he’s made since disbanding Red House Painters. He’ll never return to the turbulent sound of the 1990s, though you get raw, gutbucket blues (“Dogs”, “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), swanky, horn–laced yacht–pop (“Ben’s My Friend”), and a tender duet with Will Oldham (“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), to name a few. And with its chipper harmonies and a fake Nels Cline solo (not Kozelek’s first joke at his expense), “I Love My Dad” feels like a ribbing at latter–day Wilco, a dad–rock song about his dad.
♣ So Benji can be funny as hell, too: The effervescent narrative “Ben’s My Friend” snaps us back into the present day after the happy ending of “Micheline” and follows Kozelek as he suffers through writer’s block, a distracted lunch in a restaurant filled with “sports bar shit,” and a Postal Service concert where all the drunk kids with their cells appear to be “20 years younger.” He claims he’s too tired for the “backstage hi/bye” with pal Ben Gibbard and he heads back to his hot tub in Tahoe, before revealing the real cause for his meltdown: “I’m content, but there’s a tinge of competitiveness.” “I Love My Dad” finds Kozelek possibly outing himself as a recovering alcoholic (“I’ll have an O’Doul’s and my friend here will have a Guinness”) and a victim of child abuse, but it’s otherwise quotably hilarious, detailing a relationship with his father where valuable life lessons are imparted through both Iron Mike–style beatdowns and Edgar Winter records.
♣ Benji sounds more like Kozelek relating events instead of crafting them, which makes the continuity and reflexivity of the record feel both uncanny and the work of protracted genius. “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” was released months before it ended up as a thematic skeleton key on Benji, and it mentions a flight to Cleveland where he’ll be mourning a relative, which eventually became the inspiration for “Carissa”. “Ben’s My Friend” mentions a visit to Santa Fe that earlier served as the turning point of “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same’”. On “I Love My Dad”, his father forces him to watch wrestling matches with a handicapped friend as a means of teaching him patience and the ability to shoot the shit and show respect for those in need. These lessons serves as the entire basis for “Jim Wise”. During that visit, they bring Jim food from Panera Bread and later you find out that Kozelek’s father likes to flirt with the girls there. As standalone pieces, “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Love My Dad” are touching, heartfelt odes to his elderly parents and it’s interesting to notice the vast disparity in the tone of each: the latter is an elbow–poking, uncouth tribute to his father raising him to be the man that he is, while the former is a desperate plea for the parent that keeps him alive.
♣ None of these things reveal themselves on the first listen but even after dozens, you never feel like you’ve exhausted Benji’s secrets. The songs are stories, yes, but the kind that are told rather than read, ones you never hear the same way twice. I’ve heard the record compared to Winesburg, Ohio, a life–changing meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, the open–heart emotional surgery of Majical Cloudz’ Impersonator, and Kendrick Lamar’s character–driven opus good kid, m.A.A.d. City, which is indicative of the artistic merits of Benji, but also its ability to reach beyond the hardcore fanbase that has Kozelek has made no secret of his feelings towards as of late. Though Benji has few of the “Behind the Music” set pieces that marked Perils from the Sea, Admiral Fell Promises, and Among the Leaves, and it lacks his stage banter’s airing of grievances, this record slowly reveals itself as both a universal meditation on death and, very subtly, a recount of the life events that determined Mark Kozelek’s own artistic journey.
♣ “Dogs” takes its title from a track on Pink Floyd’s Animals. Kozelek’s has consistently acknowledged how the classic rock of his youth has stuck with him, from AC/DC, Yes, Judas Priest to Led Zeppelin, who inspire Benji’s jaw–dropping centerpiece “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same’”. Anyone who’s seen Led Zeppelin’s profoundly dumbfounding medley of concert footage and Hammer of the Gods propaganda knows that the personal circumstances surrounding your viewing of the film is far more important than any of Zep’s myth–making. Kozelek admits, “I don’t know what happened or what anyone did,” and notes how the more pastoral, meditative “The Rain Song”, “Bron Yr Aur”, and “No Quarter” spoke to him more than the thunder of John Bonham’s drumming or Jimmy Page’s mahogany double-necked Gibson SG, leading him to conclude, “from my earliest memories, I was a very melancholy kid.”
♣ Three decades later, Kozelek cannot shake melancholy, will probably “carry it to hell”, and in the meantime, uses “I Watched the Film”‘s deeply moving fingerpicking patterns (similar to “Bron Yr Aur”) to understand sadness’ pervasive grip on his life. The song ends with Kozelek promising a trip to Santa Fe to find the guy who gave him his first record deal — and yes, 4AD’s Ivo Watts–Russell really does live in Santa Fe. “Between my travel and his divorce,” both have experienced their share of melancholy in the past two decades and have nothing to gain from each other anymore except a genuine connection and a moment to reflect.
♣ That kind of sentiment represents the most profound shift that has occurred since Among the Leaves, when his interviews found him grousing about how his fans are “guys in tennis shoes” and reviews compare him to young, bearded troubadour-types like Jose Gonzalez and Bon Iver. He goes to Santa Fe for no other reason than to tell Watts, thank you. Fine then, someone does get used as a stand-in on Benji, because the record as a whole feels like him thanking not just his fans and supporters, but everyone who he’s come across in his life, by making good on his promise to give their lives poetry and deeper meaning. So while Benji is consumed with death, sadness, mourning, and tragedy, there’s gratitude within all this melancholy and it’s actually Kozelek’s least depressing and most life-affirming record: when faced with an album that exposes so much of the beauty, truth, ugliness, humor, and grace inherent in simply existing in this world, the only response is to go out and live. (http://pitchfork.com/)
|Sun Kil Moon — Benji [Limited Edition] (2014)|