Sun Kil Moon – Benji

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Before I start talking about Benji, I think it’s important to know where I’m coming from: I’ve heard every album in Red House Painters’ discography and am slowly making my way through Sun Kil Moon’s. At his worst, Mark Kozelek flat out sucks, as on Tiny Cities and Among the Leaves. At his best, Mark Kozelek is often ignorable. A lot of his songs are formulaic: he lays down a simple guitar figure (the preceding Sun Kil Moon albums are almost entirely on neon acoustic and nothing else) and speak-sings (because he doesn’t have much of a vocal range, and that’s truer now as he reaches fifty) about the same subject matter (depression) over top. Benji floored me.

Before I start talking about Benji, I think it’s important to know where I’m coming from: I’ve heard every album in Red House Painters’ discography and am slowly making my way through Sun Kil Moon’s. At his worst, Mark Kozelek flat out sucks, as on Tiny Cities and Among the Leaves. At his best, Mark Kozelek is often ignorable. A lot of his songs are formulaic: he lays down a simple guitar figure (the preceding Sun Kil Moon albums are almost entirely on neon acoustic and nothing else) and speak-sings (because he doesn’t have much of a vocal range, and that’s truer now as he reaches fifty) about the same subject matter (depression) over top. Benji floored me.

Okay, so the lyrics in “Dogs” bother you. Admittedly, my eyes almost rolled out of my head when I read the stanza, “When you give that first stinger, you’re the one who gets stung / And when you lose control and how good it feels to cum / And when you pant like a dog getting into someone” but not only does he save himself with the following stanza, “Oh rejection, how it hurts so much / When you can’t love the one you’ve been longing to touch / And they’re onto something else and it don’t feel right” and the conclusion that “It’s a complicated place this planet’s we’re on” (which is not too far from “How strange it is to be anything at all” is it?), but more importantly, the lyrics didn’t really register when I first listened to it. And after memorizing every word, they still don’t bother me. Here we have a man who spends the greater part of the album thinking about people who died or people who might die at any point in time, just reminiscing about the good times he’s had before he dies too.

But more importantly, music-wise, he hasn’t exerted so much effort into an album ever (and he’s been making music for over two decades now). Aside from containing one of the better melodies on the album, “Dogs” begins with a brief lo-fi intro and ends with too many overlapping vocal harmonies for me to count; is it ironic that a song about sex climaxes so well? How did we get there? Well, thank Steve Shelley (yes, that Steve Shelley). Two years ago, Mark Kozelek had said that “I’m always moving forward creatively and don’t like stalling, trying to find the perfect snare drum sound.” Here, it seems the more tepid reviews of Among the Leaves finally broke through to him and he went looking for that perfect snare drum sound (and found it). Elsewhere, a gospel choir elevates the chorus of “I Love My Dad” (and unlike the gospel choirs that Bob Dylan used, they’re employed reservedly throughout the 6 minute song), and while an aching saxophone rounds out the closest thing Kozelek has to pop in his name in closer “Ben’s My Friend” (about Ben Gibbard, of the Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie) with all its “ba-ba-ba”-ing goodness.

Moreover, Kozelek’s speak-singing is more effective here than I’ve ever heard from him, because he seems more interested in having a conversation than he is singing. There’s a really telling pause in “Carissa” when he reveals, “Carissa burned to death last night in a freak … accident fire” like he choked on the memory while reciting the words. And there’s something so simple about the line, “Carissa was 35 / You don’t just raise two kids, and take your trash and die”; no, you don’t. And maybe you’ll laugh when you hear what he decides will be the song’s hook on “Ben’s My Friend,” but I’m telling you that when he belts out the words “Blue crab cakes” or “Sports bar shit,” it’s one of the most compelling moments on the album because it’s so detailed, so on the moment. Actually, that entire song feels that way, especially from his own admission, “Woke up this morning and it occurred / I needed one more track to finish up my record / I was feeling out of fuel and uninspired.”

It’s far from a perfect album: the “I worry to death / I worry about her to death” hook on “Ben’s My Friend” speaks louder volumes than “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” a song that almost falls in the traps of the preceding two Sun Kil Moon albums by laying down an easy chord progression on the neon acoustic; he throws in Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) in the choruses and a thin string line in the conclusion, but it’s not enough, and I find the words here to be more embarrassing than the ones on “Dogs.” Meanwhile, “Truck Driver” could’ve been cut and I don’t think anyone would’ve jumped to save it, and though I love the conclusion of “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same” where Kozelek resolves to “Tell [the man who signed me back in ‘92] face to face, ‘Thank you for discovering my talent so early / For helping me along in this beautiful musical world / I was meant to be in,” I don’t think it was worth the 10 minute journey it took to get there (or maybe it has more to do with the fact that a lot of the song, from the finger-picked style to the actual lyrics, have to do with a band I was never invested in to begin with).

But my favorite song is “I Love My Dad,” which is surprising because I don’t love my dad – a man who decided that e-mail was the best form of communication to tell his children he didn’t want to be their father anymore, a man who was never really around to get to know me and always disappointed in the very few bits that he did know – one of the most poignant memories I have with him is when he pulled me aside after lunch, fuming with rage that I had the nerve to order fried rice at a dumpling house. But the storytelling and Kozelek’s casual way of melody-making finally making melodies is what really gets me: within a lot of the song’s stanzas involves life lessons his father taught him like not to be a racist and “[how to] shoot the shit [and] care for those in need and to show respect.” But also, there’s Kozelek’s confession that he’d rather have his child “out there like I was, probably chasing his dreams” than he would his child “at a law firm,” but quickly deciding “and hey, that’s okay too.” And just how uplifting it is when Kozelek acknowledges in the final stanza that his dad wasn’t perfect because he sometimes beat him, but he still loves and forgives him because he “did the best he could.” And there’s some lovely uses of meta, like when the keyboard comes in at the 2:46 mark after “He played me the album They Only Come Out at Night by Edgar Winter” (complete with some dinner party ambiance) or the splashing colors of the guitar solo at the 4:10 mark after “I still practice [the guitar] a lot, but not as much as Nels Cline.”

There will no doubt be more than a few listeners who go through Benji and decide that it is a terrible album. Indeed, every second of this album invites mockery. And if you’re so inclined, you’ll find a million reasons to hate it. At the risk of casting the first stone, there are times when I’m embarrassed how this album makes me feel. And at those moments, I want to stop listening. I want to laugh it off. But when a full-grown man tells how much he loves his mother and asks you to pray for the kids who died in Newtown, I think you have to ask yourself: are you laughing it off because you’re somehow above that sort of wide-eyed naiveté? Or are you laughing it off to distract yourself from the terrifying realization that you no longer feel anything?

[…]

What does it say that, in 2014, one of the most provocative, boundary-pushing, and perhaps life-changing albums of the year might very well be an acoustic folk album that says exactly what it means?”
—Gabriel Samach, tinymixtapes.

Sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt”
—David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

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