Benji by Sun Kil Moon

6 June 2019

Simplistic but melodic. Tragic but warm. Small-scale stories, grand-scale meta-narratives. These descriptions come to mind when listening to Mark Kozelek’s sixth studio LP with Sun Kil Moon, “Benji.”

Folk-rooted, acoustic-driven, and showcasing Kozelek’s usual free-styling vocals that give you the impression he’s spouting them spontaneously, “Benji” dares to tackle some of life’s toughest topics, all through the intimate voice that has become Kozelek’s niche. To call him a songwriter is an injustice. He is a storyteller.

The album has 11 tracks. Each features a tragedy, whether a death in the family, a community-based horror, or a failed relationship. Each song is based on a true story, and is told from Kozelek’s perspective. It’s as if he is taking a tour of his past, and the people and events that shaped it, and inviting us to join him.

In the opening ballad, “Carissa,” Kozelek relates his struggles to “find some meaning” in the abrupt and seemingly senseless death of a second cousin he barely knew.

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“Carissa was 35, you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die,” he sings. In “Dogs,” he bemoans the predictable and unavoidable demise of an exclusively physical relationship, using examples from his past.
“Pray for Newtown,” a tribute to the victims and families affected by the 2012 Connecticut shooting, describes how we are all greatly impacted by ­catastrophes, though strangely go on living as though nothing happened.

How much you enjoy “Benji” ultimately comes down to how much you appreciate Kozelek’s style and understand where he’s coming from. This is not an album meant to stimulate in short bursts – most of the tracks are long and feature similar minimal melodies. The saxophones come out in the closer, “Ben’s My Friend,” the album’s most upbeat and unpredictable track, but for the most part, “Benji” has the feel of an album more concerned with its content than with its immediate ­surroundings.

Arguably Sun Kil Moon’s most intriguing and thought-provoking work to date, “Benji”’s simplistic aesthetic approach and gritty subject matter make for one of the most complete albums this year. F

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