Sun Kil Moon ‘Benji’ – Review

8 Mar
Sun Kil Moon (otherwise known as Mark Kozelek) has been quietly releasing albums for over a decade. It’s strange then that this, his ninth album, ‘Benji’, should suddenly attract so much attention. Especially as everything about it seems to deflect attention. These are simple, unshowy songs about the darker side of every-day life. Benji is stripped of the flashy language and metaphor that gave colour to his older work, and it’s his most restrained album musically as well. Maybe that’s what makes it stand out. Or perhaps it’s attracted so much attention because of its un-nerving and dark obsession with mortality. Either way, ‘Benji’ has already gained a lot of acclaim.
Despite dealing with death, the most emotive of subjects, ‘Benji’ is strangely un-moving. The lack of metaphor gives the lyrics a direct, matter-of-fact quality that feels almost diaristic. Some of the lines are delivered with such straight-faced, disinterested dourness that you kind of have to laugh – such as when he describes the death of a distant cousin in the plainest language. “You don’t just take out the trash and die” he mutters. Except she did. As he goes on to say, this is bad luck, but the same thing happened to his uncle years before. That’s dire luck or “goddam what were the odds?” His casual delivery and dry style prevent these songs from turning into the melodramas they so easily could have been in less capable hands. On the other hand it’s difficult to work out why he’s writing this long and unwieldly song about a cousin he admits to hardly having known. After wrestling with the album for a while, I’m still no closer to understanding Kozelek’s ultimate aim.
I suppose ‘Benji’ is an album that tries to take uneasy memories, and “find some poetry, make some sense of it, to find deeper meaning” as he puts it. That’s a noble aim, and one all art should aspire to, but I’m not sure Kozelek really succeeds. That line, from the opening track, is followed by four questions. In other words, Kozelek Is less interested in conveying meaning and providing answers than searching for meaning and asking his own questions. It leaves the listener feeling more like a voyeur than an active participant in the creative process. This is muddled poetry, where songs have vague destinations and ponderous structures. It prods and pokes at little, relatable details in a bid to paint a big picture, but too often it lacks the direction needed. These songs are little more than memories, some more interesting than others, recited in the most straightforward way. In the end, there are too many questions and not enough answers. Too much rambling and not enough poetry.
Along the way though there are odd moments of inspiration. The closer, ‘Ben’s My Friend’, comes closest to conveying real, lasting ‘meaning’. It deals with mortality in a much more vibrant way than any other song on here, probably because it is about the living rather than the dead. Here the mundane, unfrivilous language is used appropriately to describe the mundane, unfrivivilous realities of middle age, which all serve to convey the sadness Kerzack feels. This is a fascinating, nuanced song about middle age and friendship and jealousy. Here the matter-of-fact style that has previously felt quite laboured feels effortless and revelatory. The details fizzle and resonate – from the ‘drunk kids staring at their cells’ to ‘the nice music and all the exercise’ – this is a song that speaks to me about something real. The two songs dedicated to his parents also convey tangable emotions of grattitude and regret. I doubt it’s a coincidence that these songs have clear, definable structures, unlike most songs on ‘Benji’. Certainly, when Kerzack is clear in his aims and purpose, the songs benefit in almost every respect.
These moments of clarity and thoughtfulness are unfortunately rare on ‘Benji’, an album that jogs along too casually for its own good. We get nouns galore (Carissa, Katie, Patricia, Mary Ann, Mary Ann’s friend, Deborah, Jim Wise etc) but what do we ultimately learn about these characters? Well, a lot of bad stuff happened to them, but we never feel connected to their troubles, we never feel emotionally attached. There is just enough of interest and worth here to make ‘Benji’ a worthwhile, and occasionally essential, listen. Written down, these stories would be quite rightly dismissed as weak, but sung over pretty guitar lines in Kozelek’s distinctive croon they become quite enjoyable. ‘Benji’ is always pleasant, sometimes frustrating, sometimes bland and sometimes revelatory; It adds up to fairly unique album.

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