Sun Kil Moon releases powerful, stunning sixth album “Benji”


Colin Moore

The newest album from Sun Kil Moon, the current alias of singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, is unlike any record in recent memory.

Titled “Benji” after a fleeting lyrical reference to the children’s movie, the album is obsessed with mortality. Nearly every song features heartrending, often crushing tales of death.Benjisunkilmoon

The people who die in these songs range from Kozelek’s close relatives, to the victims of the Newtown shooting, to the serial killer Richard Ramirez.

This fixation on the fleeting nature of life is nothing new for the kind of stripped-down, melodic folk Kozelek writes. Artists such as Neil Young and Sufjan Stevens have often sung about the dying or dead over plaintive acoustic guitars.

However, “Benji” stands apart from the pack, not for its subject matter, but for its delivery and lyrical composition. Kozelek fills each song with a novelistic attention to detail and an incredibly personal wellspring of emotion.

Most importantly, there’s hardly a metaphor in sight in these songs as far as I can tell. The occasional simile might pop up, but for the most part, “Benji” is a straightforward, piercingly direct collection of facts, literal images and sweeping recollections so nuanced they must come directly from Kozelek’s experiences.

The lack of figurative language here might suggest a dry inaccessibility. Instead, by stripping these songs of florid phrases and elaborate symbols, Kozelek gives them an incredible pathos.

This is especially impressive considering the scope of some tracks, which average a length of around six minutes. “Micheline” is the story of three separate tragic characters in the narrator’s life, from someone he barely knew to his grandmother. “Dogs” is a wild, ragged account of what seems to be the entirety of Kozelek’s sexual experiences.

The album’s centerpiece, and one of the best songs of the young year, is “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same,’” a 10-minute eulogy for childhood, family bonds, melancholia and Led Zeppelin.

Musically, “Benji” is spare, mainly featuring acoustic guitar and piano with drums, electric piano and guest backup vocalists chiming in at key moments. Still, the production is lush and intimate, grounding Kozelek’s everyman voice in front of his elliptical guitar motifs.

If “Benji” sounds too much like a downer, fear not. There are moments of light throughout, such as a charming, pitch-perfect Wilco-rip called “I Love My Dad” and the comedic closer “Ben’s My Friend,” a smooth-jazz parody about Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard helping Kozelek out of a depressive funk.

Additionally, these lighter passages of the album aren’t just there to balance out the weight of songs like “Carissa” or “Pray for Newtown.” They serve as part and parcel of the whole package.

Sun Kil Moon’s aim in writing a “mortality” album isn’t for listeners to feel sad, especially not when the album in question is so strikingly different from typical, tear-jerking fare. Kozelek often sounds just as surprised as us when the juxtaposition of his dry observations leads to moments of stunning beauty and complexity.

These are some of the most idiosyncratic, striking songs to come from the singer-songwriter idiom in recent years. “Benji” may be a heavy album, but it’s just as equally life-affirming.

Rating: four out of five stars

Story by Colin Moore, A&E Editor