Sun Kil Moon is an Indie band fronted by Mark Kozelek that I’ve been enamored with since their 2003 album Ghosts of the Great Highway. They’ve made tons of albums worth checking out, even going back to the 90s with their previous line up as Red House Painters. Their sound is generally melancholic Indie but it has evolved a lot since the 90s, mainly staying within the Indie-Rock genre. Ghosts of the Great Highway is what I thought would be the high water mark of their career, but then they released Benji.
Benji is absolute genius, and it’s hard for me to explain why in so few words. I’m really struggling to avoid talking about every song in detail but here we go. What seperates Benji from their other albums is how frankly and upfront everything is presented. Mark Kozelek has stripped away almost all the metaphor and abstraction from his lyrics, and what is left is pure poetry and honesty. Taken at face value it seems like they are just his thoughts written out plainly, but the lyrics are so much more than that. The instrumentation is fantastic but definitely not as grandiose as they have been in the past, now it’s generally acoustic guitar led.
Carissa starts off the album with a dedication to his 2nd cousin who recently passed away in the same accident that took his uncle’s life. I think this event really spurred this whole album on, as the subject for nearly all of his songs is death, family, life, and the past. It seems this death really hit Mark hard, even though he didn’t know her that well, but like he puts it:
“She was my second cousin
I didn’t know her well at all but it don’t mean that I wasn’t
Meant to find some poetry
To make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning”
I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love is a dedication to his mother, mirrored later by the song I Love My Dad. It’s such a simply beautiful dedication that cuts to the core every time, always making me think of my relationship with my Mom. Truck Driver is when it finally hit me (on my first listen) that this was a monumental album, something completely different. Mark’s diary-like lyrical delivery paints such a vivid picture as a haunting, ghostly guitar strums along. He goes over his Uncle’s death that was related to in Carissa, as well as his first inspiration for making music. The story telling is cyclical, most likely meant to reflect the cycle of life and death.
Dogs shifts gears with a laundry list of all the women that Mark has been with romantically, starting with childhood puppy love. It’s pretty relatable at all stages of his life, including the awkward teenage years and adulthood relationships that all end for different reasons. What’s different here again is how honest Mark is, he goes into graphic detail of all his past flings. Pray For Newtown could easily be taken cynically, but like the rest of the album, this is genuine. Jim Wise is another heart breaker about a friend of his Father who mercy killed his wife and failed to suicide right after. Mark never directly takes a side on the matter but you get the feeling that it’s all just a senseless waste.
I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same is another stroke of genius, mainly about Mark’s childhood, detailing memories everything from the death of his Grandmother, to childhood fights, the start of his music career, and the nature of his depression. As he states:
“I don’t know what happened or what anyone did
From my earliest memories I was a very melancholic kid
When anything close to me at all in the world died
To my heart, forever, it would be tied”
The part where he talks about his guilt for beating up another child at school always makes me well up. “Wherever you are, that poor kid, I’m so sorry”. Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes is the black sheep of the album, with a subject matter completely different from the theme of this album, and I think a lot of fans don’t like this as much. To me this draws a line to Pray For Newtown – it relates that terror of insecurity that a lot of people felt at each respective time, always feeling in the back of their head that someone might come attack them.
Micheline is another heartbreaking song detailing people he used to know- a mentally challenge girl he knew when he was growing up, his friend Brett who suffered an aneurysm and died later, and his Grandmother. This has my favorite chorus or rather bridge of any song, something about the way Mark Kozelek sings works perfectly, saying “Micheline /My friend Brett/My Grandma” over and over. A subtle piano is perfect here, giving the slight emotional boost that is needed to make this song complete. It also answers the mystery of the album title, it’s tied to a memory of a visit to his Grandma’s where he saw the movie Benji (1974). Ben’s My Friend closes the album with an upbeat groove but still keeping the lyrical style of the rest of the album. It elevates the banality of every day life to pure poetry, with hilarious refrains of “sports bar shit”. What comes out of nowhere to hit it out of the park is a Saxaphone of all things, it is just perfect, capturing the melancholic mood perfectly but never overstaying it’s welcome.
Benji is a must listen for everyone I think. Find it and listen to it by any means necessary.