In the opening track of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek makes it clear that he is confused and intrigued about — yet ultimately fixated upon — death. Describing the titular “Carissa,” Kozelek explains the “senseless tragedy” of her death (an aerosol can explosion, just like the way his uncle died, nonetheless). His paced revelations of his second cousin Carissa conclude with his homecoming to Ohio and decision to honor Carissa by making “sure her name is known across every city.” In this statement, a reflective, often introspective journey into the life of Mark Kozelek begins, and in the undeniably powerful directness of Benji, Kozelek’s sense of gratitude for all those who have formed him triumphs over the morbid subject matter.
The sixth album of Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek, now the only current member of the project, recruited the likes of Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Owen Ashworth, Will Oldham and Jen Wood to heighten the universality of the album’s deeply personal songs. This technique is apparent in the second track “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” where Kozelek’s voice aches in harmony with the back-up vocalist Will Oldham’s.
Lyrically dense, Benji is a testament to the masterful storytelling abilities of Kozelek, who manages to craft the wholeness and distinctness of several of his key relationships into song form. In “I Love My Dad,” the song’s lyrics, tone and pacing contrast greatly from those of “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” offering a Wilco-sounding and Nels Cline-referenced run-down of the life lessons Kozelek has picked up from his father, which can be summed up in his father’s timeless advice, “to each his own.”
Between “Pray for Newtown” and “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” Kozelek meditates on the media’s role in the pervasiveness of death and violence upon America’s collective unconscious. “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” covers both the gruesome murders of the serial killer, rapist and burglar dubbed the “Night Stalker” in 80s Los Angeles and San Francisco, and what are presented as the equally eerie prospects of aging.
The album’s standout track, the over ten minute long “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same” effortlessly glides with the Kozelek’s moving guitar playing, connecting the Led Zeppelin cult classic film to the events of Kozelek’s entire life, held together by his realization that he “was a very melancholy kid.” In his stream of consciousness style of reflection, Kozelek carries us to the desert outside Santa Fe, to visit and simply say “thank you” to the man that signed him to a record deal back in 1992. In the retelling of this event, Kozelek carefully presents to us the heart of this record — the sense of gratitude which has prompted him to tell his stories with such great detail.
The album ends with “Ben’s My Friend,” a hilarious account of his perspective of aging as a male musician. The song’s harmonies dwell humorously on “blue crab cakes” and “sports bar shit,” eventually bringing the listener to The Postal Service concert where Kozelek goes to see his friend Benjamin Gibbard, but leaves bothered and slightly jealous by the audience of 8,000 with all “the drunk kids staring at their cells.” The tale of male musician friendship is revealing, but more importantly, clearly genuine and honestly heartwarming, and offers itself as the impetus for Kozelek’s long hours working on this album.
Considering Benji’s distinct collection of songs, Kozelek’s work has not only paid off, but is nothing short of remarkable for its careful weaving of wit, wry humor and wisdom with the often melodramatic and contrived themes of death and gratitude. In Benji Kozelek captures the power of human relationships — all the grief, joy and beauty — and prudently releases it onto the listener in a way that only Kozelek, as a man whose mind has adeptly connected such morbid and personal song topics into a universally life-affirming record, would be able to do.