By Cal Meacham
Sun Kil Moon – Benji (2014)
I was really tentative when Mark Kozelek ditched the Red House Painters name for Sun Kil Moon and released Ghosts Of Great Highway. He traded in long droners on acoustic guitars for nylon strings and a more earnest lyrical approach. It wasn’t until Among The Leaves that the new style really solidified and the new found intimacy with his subject matter paid dividends.
Benji dives deeper into Kozelek’s personal world, with songs about dead relatives, sexual experiences and the first time he watched The Song Remains The Same. The songs are simple in structure which allows Kozelek’s stories to take center stage and we get some of his best work. His voice has never sounded better and his writing has never been stronger. Micheline is arguably the most beautiful song in his vast catalog with three distinct threads: of sadness talking of a girl he used to know as a kid, his friend Brett (who died) and his Grandma. His ability to cram as many words as he can into each verse never detracts, instead painting very specific moments in his life, even mentioning the first time he saw the movie Benji as a kid. Seemingly arbitrary verses become sadder with each listen as you find yourself hollow singing along with “It was the first time I saw a hummingbird, or a palm tree, or a lizard”. Even the epic I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same is a ten and a half minute loose feeling story that listens like he is reading 5 random articles from the local paper. You will quickly see the play count skyrocket for several songs as you pick up on different moments to connect with.
With each devastating story of loss is a moment that goes far into the personal details. Dogs is a song that I don’t hesitate to skip each time through, not connecting to the all-to-personal details of his first sexual encounters. The weakness of the song doesn’t lie within the content but with the brazen recount of each moment, which induces an uncomfortable feeling more than an inquisitive one. Pray For Newton would play better as a one off single or on a benefit compilation instead of in context with the rest of the album. His anger/frustration while it is well written, feels out of place because it isn’t so much as personal for Kozelek as it is an observation of a tragic event. His connections to things that have happened in his life reach out more vividly because of the way he works his words.
The album isn’t all sadness and downtrodden life, which prevents you from seeking out the nearest cliff to throw yourself off. Ben’s My Friend is relief in the form of saxophone interludes, I Love My Dad ditches the mellow approach with a swinging riff and drums. Kozelek is in top form as he reaches out to a new audience, shedding the skin of his former musical life. While he is very conscious of his audience, he has no qualms with telling his stories as if you were listening to a book on tape. He is writing like very few modern musicians are willing to do and we will continue to be rewarded if this is the Sun Kil Moon that he always envisioned. Benji is strong because it allows Mark Kozelek to shine in all the right spots: with his words and his voice.
Score – 8.5/10