In nearly every song on Benji, someone dies. Family members, friends, celebrities, people in the news; they all pass away. This album packs a huge emotional punch as it tells its stories, often solely through Mark Kozelek's baritone vocal and his skilful yet gentle guitar playing. It moves, entices and, in some places, even amuses the listener.
As a solo songwriter and with his bands Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, Mark Kozelek has always dealt in the melancholic side of life. Benji, the sixth album he has released under the name Sun Kil Moon, is essentially a solo album with occasional help from the likes of Steve Shelley, Will Oldham and Owen Ashworth.
Benji is not as light as Sun Kil Moon's previous release, 2012's equally impressive Among the Leaves, which came across like pages from a tour diary, recounting experiences from being drowned out by other bands at Field Day, to telling his girlfriend that he acquired an STD on tour. Kozelek's subsequent collaborative albums with The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle and Desertshore respectively, saw him shine even more light on his everyday problems and adventures, to the extent where people began to wonder if there was anything that he wouldn't write about.
Benji continues this to an extent. Again the songs feature remarkably detailed scenes from Kozelek's life, but by attaching them to the universal theme of death he gives them much more gravitas. Somehow, despite all the personal details, this seems far from self-indulgent.
Throughout Benji his family and friends take starring roles. The opening track, the hauntingly beautiful 'Carissa', tells the tale of his second cousin who died in a fire at the age of 35. He struggles to remember her and puzzles over her death, whilst yearning to return home and see all her relations, and vows to "sing her name across every sea." The music fits perfectly with the story, a heartbreakingly sad arrangement of voice and acoustic guitar, only embellished by Will Oldham's poignant background vocal.
'Truck Driver' is yet another remarkable song, packed with detailed memories and vivid pictures, and is so convincing that when he opens with the line "my uncle died in a fire on his birthday," you never doubt him for a second, despite the fact he has just told us that two family members have died in separate aerosol fires. When we write it down it seems odd, but when he sings it, it rings true.
It is unusual that with all this death in the songs, Kozelek barely touches on his own mortality. Sure, there are the familiar grumbles about middle-age problems dotted around, but this time he seems to have found more empathy with others. The lovely 'I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love', and the blues-based sing-along 'I Love My Dad' show his worries about losing either parent, and he wears his heart on his sleeve by telling them how much they mean to him. It is both rare and affecting to hear these sentiments in the world of rock music.
You could talk about the lyrics all day, but the music is worth your attention too. Like nearly all of his releases, Kozelek has produced this album himself, and it is remarkable how he manages to push boundaries in terms of how a singer songwriter can come across. He often multi-tracks his vocals, a trick which makes the explicit tale of his sexual adventures 'Dogs' even more in-your-face. The menacing repetitive guitar riff on the bleak 'Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes' is made even more unsettling when the vocals slip out of sync with each other. A perfect fit for a song with serial killers at its heart.
Although the subject matter is heavy, Benji is far from a hard listen. The delicate and pretty arrangement of 'Micheline' is a deceptive background to three more heartbreaking stories. 'Jim Wise' combines the music-box melodies of Owen Ashworth (Casiotone for the Painfully Alone/ Advance Base) with Kozelek's tale of his Dad's friend who mercy-killed his wife then failed in his own suicide.
One of the most affecting pieces is the ten minute story song, 'I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same,' which uses Led Zeppelin's trippy concert movie as a trigger for a ton of childhood memories as he tries to get to the roots of his lifelong sadness. He sings." I don't know what happened or what anyone did/ But 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," and it feels like we have found the heart of the album. The long melody line, worthy of someone like the Incredible String Band or John Fahey, draws you into the story until it becomes overwhelming. The instrumental coda is long and beautiful, and leaves you reflecting on what you have just heard.
Benji closes with its most uptempo and accessible track, 'Ben's My Friend'. Punctuated with smooth saxophone, it recounts in great detail the events leading up to a visit to a concert by the Postal Service, which leaves our hero with sore feet, a sore back and a grudging respect for his friend Ben Gibbard, who now sells more tickets than him. It's not so much a page from a diary as a scene from a sit-com, and it's a great way to end things.
Most people who have heard Kozelek's previous work will know to expect beauty, sadness and emotional baggage. Benji is no different in that respect, but it encourages you to empathise with the subjects of the songs, and therefore adds some light to the melancholy. It scores highly because it weaves all these scenarios and tales over subtle yet richly varied music. For Mark Kozelek this is yet another career highlight.