It’s quite an ability to write 11 songs about grief and death and make it one of the year’s most uplifting releases. On each of the songs on Benji, Mark Kozelek, under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, takes us through some downright horrific tales of loss, but we emerge at the end treasuring life and ultimately happy.
There’s the second cousin who dies in a horrific accident on Carissa, as well as murder, suicide and the simple tragedy of dying of old age. The loss on this album is also of relationships, such as on the brutally explicit Dogs and the loss of youth, on album epilogue Ben’s My Friend. On this track the aging Kozelek doesn’t take the chance to hang out back stage at a Postal Service gig with his friend Ben Gibbard but instead drives home and laments about the ‘sports bar shit’ taking over his town centre and moans about having to stand up for so long at the gig.
Despite the maudlin subject matter there’s an uplifting quality throughout, conveyed through the deep joy of remembering the lives that have been lost and of giving a meaning and depth to each character that he sings of. On Carissa, he wants to know more about the life of his second cousin and through the rich lyrical story telling we the listener want to know more too. Each tale is gripping and as good as any good novel.
Benji is at its most poignant and powerful when it tackles the loss that is yet to come. Both Kozelek’s parents are still alive, but the devastation when they eventually depart is beautifully covered on the tracks I Love My Dad and I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love.
While clearly drawn from his own life, there is also fiction and artistic license here. We are not quite sure whether Kozelek genuinely knew all those people he is referring to. Some he admits to, while others have only a small inspiration in reality. Jim Wise, for example, is a real friend of his father’s, although not by that name.
Musically Kozelek’s acoustic and Portuguese guitars, supplemented by former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley on percussion and drums, and even a horn section on Ben’s a Friend of Mine, fit the mood perfectly. Vocally Kozelek has developed an extra gravelly gravitas, but there’s still sweetness especially from the backing vocals provided by Will Odlham among others.
Where this stands in Kozelek’s catalogue is high, possibly at the summit. As a piece of story telling its on a par, if not better than his other two Sun Kil Moon masterpieces April and Ghosts of the Great Highway. This combination of lyrical and musical perfection to create a mood and connect with the listener about their life and any loss they feel makes this for me a faultless album deserving of only my second ever top score for a new album in five years of reviewing.
By Joe Lepper