In the gorgeous, mournful opener, Carissa, Mark Kozelek sings of the grieving around his second cousin dying in a freak yard fire. He needs to “get and give some hugs” even though he didn’t know her that well. She died taking the trash out at 35 years old. She died in much the same way as Kozelek’s uncle, her grandfather. From here the heartbreak and body count only continues.
Benji is the new Sun Kil Moon album. It’s also the best thing Kozelek has done. And that’s saying a lot given a recent return to great form with The Album Leaf and so many strong efforts as Sun Kil Moon, as/with Red House Painters and solo.
As good as a lot of the Sun Kil material has been I just reached my limit with Kozelek’s voice – and voicings. That palette, the 12-string, the downbeat, the grey hue, shadowy, morose – but Benji is something else. Not only a return to form, not only the best thing he’s released it’s something that actually threatens music to up its game. For this isn’t just an album, it’s a memoir-in-song, it’s a set of memoir moments in fact, it’s so many story-songs piled atop one another that it’s perfectly reasonable to be overwhelmed, to feel daunted by this level of introspection, the way he ignores almost everything about (standard) song-structure and delivers punishing quasi-raps and revealing prose poems about loving his father, hanging out with his mate Ben from The Postal Service and death. So much fucking death.
There’s Truck Driver about the uncle who is mentioned in Carissa, there’s a prayer for Newtown, mention of the Batman killer, Tony Soprano and of the death of serial killer Richard Ramirez, there’s the death too of his adolescence, beautifully realised across the 10-minute confessional, I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same, where a dissection of what made Led Zeppelin great brings out the first time Kozelek was in a fight. You feel the shame he still feels, you feel the pain he conjures, his heart is close to bursting with grief as the album’s death toll climbs, as he collects victims to cling to, to wring grief from, to pass on whatever hugs he can.
There are moments where confession turns to cringe too (Dogs) as Kozelek is frank about awkward first sexual encounters, but when this album hits its emotional high points (Micheline, Song Remains, Truck Driver, Ramirez, Pray for Newtown, I Love My Dad, I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love and most of Ben’s My Friend) it’s not only exhilarating but deeply profound, a spiritual feeling exudes; it’s music only nominally. Beyond that it seeks to clarify, to question, to ponder, it hopes to arrive at head held high moments, at redemption, it isn’t just a bunch of songs – it would be reasonable to see it as a life’s work. For it reflects so much of a life set to work, to working, to working things out.
And yet you get the feeling that whilst this will stand – it’ll be not only one of the great records, the greatest – deepest – most thrilling listening experiences this year and across other years – it is, for Mark Kozelek, just another bunch of songs. Just like there’ll be more to come. And soon. He might even beat this as his best album. It feels like the fire has been lit. Oh shit, I can’t really feel good about saying that here. But the roll has been started. This is something so much bigger and better than almost all of the shit you shovel into yourself and call music. It’s so good you’d have to expect crushing indifference from many. And you can certainly hope to imagine Kozelek getting ready to better it. And then to maybe even beat it again just after that. But surely he must know that this is just a little bit special. And that this album is getting and giving so many hugs.