Sun Kil Moon
[Caldo Verde; 2014]
Mark Kozelek’s music has never been about the lyrics. Whether it be his time with Red House Painters, his solo work, or his latest project Sun Kil Moon, his calming tenor and intricate guitar picking always took precedence over the metaphor-cloaked lyrics. I’ve been a fan of Kozelek’s work for the past decade, and the only lyrics that stand out in my mind are not even his, rather, from his two cover albums Tiny Cities (Modest Mouse) and What’s Next To the Moon (AC/DC).
In the past few years he has released a couple lackluster albums that suggested his muse was waning, but with his latest, Benji, it looks like that imminent closing window resulted in him throwing away his tride-and-true blueprint and starting anew. In a recent interview Kozelek said of his new start: “I’ve run out of metaphors, and when you get older, you’re bothered, or inspired, by other things in life than a girl breaking up with you. Things get heavier as you get older.”
And what exactly causes things to get heavier when you get older? If Benji is any barometer, the answer is death, and lots of it. Like a roll call of corpses at a morgue, the album chronicles the deaths of family members, friends, acquaintances, mass murderers, and innocent children. If death isn’t sufficient in crushing your spirit, there’s enough regret and guilt on Benji to go around. Listening to the album from start to finish is an emotional endurance test that tugs at your core and ignites an internal assessment of one’s own place in the world.
Kozelek comes out of the gates with one of the most devastating tracks, a song about his second cousin who “burned to death…in a freak accident.” The shocking aerosol can freak death that mirrored her own father’s demise (the subject of track “Truck Driver”) leads Kozelek to ponder “You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” The song introduces the album’s haunting mood, intimate production, and matter-of-fact lyrical approach. It also reveals the mission statement of Benji: “She was only my second cousin/ But that don’ t mean that I’m not here for her/ or that I wasn’t meant to give her life poetry/ To make sure her name is known across every sea.”
There are a lot of real life names that are now “known across every sea” thanks to Benji. There’s Micheline, the girl who lived down his street whose “brain worked a little slower” but “wanted love like anyone else.” There’s his friend Brett who died from an aneurysm and Kozelek’s grandma who “had a pretty hard life.” On “Pray For Newtown” he relays memories of where he was when heard about mass shootings in Ohio, Norway, Oregon, Colorado, and of course, Newtown, Connecticut.
“Pray For Newton”:
But Kozelek’s mourning isn’t limited to the innocent. On “Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes” he twists the knife, revealing the irony of life when a mass-murdering maniac like Ramirez dies peacefully while all of the guiltless souls are taken in such violent, unspeakable ways. Kozelek isn’t using death to spread some message of hope – he lays out the grim facts and lets the listener come to their own hopeless conclusion.
In the past, Kozelek would have lightened the blows with a heavy dose of symbolism and scenic imagery, but this time around, he simply reveals the facts. References range from Red Lobster to “The Song Remains the Same” to Edgar Winter to the movie “Benji” (the only mention of the album’s title), all of which only accentuate the album’s realism. This isn’t an album of storytelling a la Gordan Lightfoot; it’s a fact-based police report that reveals every depressing detail. Instead of worrying about following the traditional song structure of verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, etc, Kozelek’s songs unroll in an unrestricted stream-of-consciousness rambling that would make Jack Kerouac proud.
“I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same”:
Amidst the devastation, Kozelek takes moments to appreciate those that are still with him. On “Ben’s My Friend” he recounts his friendship with Ben Gibbard. He pays respect to his parents respectively with “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Love My Dad.” And with “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” he tells of a surprise visit he paid to Ivo Watts-Russell so he could thank him for signing Red House Painters back in 2001. With death looming all around him, now is a better time than ever to thank those that nurtured and supported him.
For some strange reason, this album makes me think of a recent Apple advertisement for the iPad Air that features audio from the film Dead Poet Society with Robin Williams asking, “What will be your verse?” With Benji, Kozalek is providing a verse for all those he loves and all those who died before they could create their own.