Release Date: Feb 11, 2014
Record label: Caldo Verde Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter
There are 11 songs on Sun Kil Moon’s astonishing sixth LP Benji, and in nearly all of them, somebody dies. And that’s not including the ones where someone’s on the verge of death or seriously headed towards it. Toddlers die, teenagers die, adults die, and the elderly die. They die of natural causes and in freak accidents.
In Autumn 1992, 4AD released one of their benchmark records, Red House Painters’ debut Down Colorful Hill, a six-track collection of demos personally selected by label head Ivo Watts-Russell that perfectly mirrored the cover image – a solitary, black and white shot of a single bed in an otherwise empty room. They followed that up soon after with a self-titled record known better as Rollercoaster which extended the slow, confessional, 'music box sound' style into a double album that was as gloriously downbeat as it was psychedelic, as bitterly regretful as it was filled with sepia-tinted nostalgia. Over the years since, despite RHP folding in 2001, that band’s leader Mark Kozelek has gone on to release eccentric solo records (2001’s AC/DC covers album What’s Next to the Moon springs immediately to mind), collaborate on more challenging projects with the likes of Jimmy Lavalle and Desertshore, and self-release (via his label Caldo Verde) an abundance of live acoustic albums that span years of appearances at concert halls across the globe.
At what point does sincerity become experimental? I was still in high school back when I first read that review. I guess that would have been almost three years ago at this point, two years before I started writing for TMT myself. I was just starting to get into music at the time, but I still remember that specific passage leaving an impression on me.
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.
Spanning a career of over twenty five years, Mark Kozelek has explored the different dimensions that lie in one’s inner psyche, mostly built around ponderous acoustic passages that are both plaintive and therapeutic. He’s almost determined to remain locked in his sadness, fully accepting of the circumstantial disasters and wrong turns that he continues to take. Revisiting his extensive discography is like reuniting with an old friend whose flaws one tries to overlook, concerned about his decisions only to realize that he’s well and content in his placement.
Mark Kozelek has always been something of a diarist in his songwriting; the very first Red House Painters album included "Michael," a touching song about a childhood friend gone wild and gone missing. But on this sixth Sun Kil Moon album, he takes this impulse into directions of therapy, elegy and unrefined straight reporting. Love songs for both of his parents and odes to oddly specific and similar deaths of family members sit next to broader topics such as the Newtown killings and the death of serial killer Richard Ramirez.What connects everything is a steady stream of documentary details and recollections that spring from confronting mortality.
Mark Kozelek possesses one of modern music’s most inarguable gifts for both songwriting and delivery and, here, he uses both in full effect to get a lot off his chest. Three records of different projects just last year alone apparently didn’t empty the well. Benji catches the prolific Kozelek as Sun Kil Moon in a wordy, conversational mood, spinning personal tales of tragedy both familial (“Carissa”) and national (“Pray For Newtown”).
Can old dogs learn new tricks? ‘Benji’ is Mark Kozelek’s sixth album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, or his 12th if you include the Red House Painters records they follow – and that’s not counting two collaborative albums last year. With such a prodigious work rate, a man could be forgiven for losing his edge.Kozelek’s songs match a mordant sensibility with a wry wit that remains unblunted by the passage of time. The sprawling ‘Among The Leaves’ from 2012 saw him playfully subverting the album format with a 17-track opus that included one song with an 18-word title.
The shift in style and approach in former Red House Painters mainman Mark Kozelek’s songwriting that occurred at the point of Admiral Fell Promises in 2010 seems to have divided opinion amongst his mostly loyal devotees. Improving his skills as a guitarist, his favouring of classical guitar over electric directed him well away from the dense, trudgy and allusive narratives of Ghosts Of The Great Highway and April towards more forthrightly autobiographical storytelling (perhaps?), some very dry humour and a half-spoken singing style that at times has come pretty close to a weird form of rapping. Some found 2012’s Among The Leaves to be too flippant, although for others it contained rich layers of irony and some deliciously self-mocking lyrical punches.
Purveyor of dour, caustic songs since 1992, erstwhile Red House Painter Mark Kozelek has yet to garner the midlife kudos of a Will Oldham or a Bill Callahan. Benji, roughly his 13th album, might well be this difficult artist's most direct work, possibly the most devastating this career melancholic has ever penned. Benji has a high body count – uncles, second cousins, murderers, all true stories – while Dogs packs in so much detail of the young Kozelek's sexual fumblings your toes dislocate.
One of modern music’s master storytellers has returned with the nostalgic and intensely personal Benji. Since the early nineties, former Red House Painters prolific frontman Mark Kozelek has assembled an impressive catalog, releasing one poignant recording after another. The brilliantly-crafted sixth studio album from the celebrated indie folk troubadour might possibly be the most beautifully candid record he has recorded under the Sun Kil Moon guise or any nom de plume.
You have to wonder when Mark Kozelek will give himself a break. If you were to judge the totality of his life by his music, it would make for a pretty bleak story. As the driving creative force behind the Red House Painters and, more recently, Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek, 47, is the definition of a mope rock troubadour. For more than 25 years, he’s been crafting sweetly despondent odes to heartache, letting the light creep in only for the briefest of moments.
In a recent edition of her Village Voice advice column for bands, Fan Landers, writer Jessica Hopper offered up this sentiment to an artist worried about the very personal aspect of his lyrics: “Your work belongs to you, this band and this song writing is an important outlet for you and so do whatever you need in order to keep it as a comfortable place for you to express yourself, authentically and without reservation. ” I kept returning to that line as I listened to this latest album being released by Mark Kozelek under the name Sun Kil Moon. Because if Benji and its predecessor Among The Leaves are any indication, the 47-year-old songwriter and master guitarist has found that comfortable place.
Folk singer Mark Kozelek's remarkable sixth album as Sun Kil Moon feels less like a collection of songs than a series of eulogies delivered in real time. "Carissa was 35/You don't just raise two kids and take out your trash and die," he protests – then admits he didn't know Carissa all that well, anyway. It's a casually devastating line on an album filled with them.
If ever there was an album for Mark Kozelek's true cult of admirers, Benji is it. Despite the trademark intimacy in his songs, Kozelek has usually concealed himself behind them. Not here. These nakedly confessional songs are adorned by his voice, nylon-string guitar, and sundry instruments and voices.
Mark Kozelek's career has been filled with twists and turns. As a member (and primary songwriter) of Red House Painters, his work fit semi-comfortably under a broad "alt-country" umbrella, but even then, there were hints that Kozelek's interests were a little different than the average songwriter of the early '90s. There was the Red House Painters' EP centered around a KISS cover, the solo release containing primarily AC/DC covers, and then suddenly a new band with a debut about a bunch of boxers (Sun Kil Moon's Ghosts of the Great Highway).
Sun Kil Moon, Benji (Stream) Heartbreaking and raw, Benji is Sun Kil Moon’s best album to date, and indisputably cements Mark Kozelek’s reputation as one of the finest storytellers in contemporary indie music. Kozelek focuses each song around a central character or theme—usually friends or family from Ohio who have died or in some way encountered death—and combines tightly woven narratives with his own captivating and idiosyncratic free association to explore the way in which humans process other people’s tragedies through their own experiences. The sparse musical arrangements and haunting production only serve to heighten the album’s intimacy and ultimately render it a masterpiece of reflection and introspection, destined to be played on repeat in scores of late-night, tired, and lonely rooms.
Though Mark Kozelek has few equals when it comes to dislodging lumps in throats, Benji is his most emotionally taxing Sun Kil Moon record by some way. It’s an album almost entirely about death – the deaths of relatives, friends, strangers and children; people who die young and old; in fires and in school shootings; in freak accidents and of heart attacks. Each death leaves an imprint on Kozelek’s psyche, weighing him down with pain and reminding him of the preciousness of life, so that he might “find some poetry, make some sense of it / Find a deeper meaning in the senseless tragedy”.
Many years on from his Red House Painters years, Mark Kozelek’s vision is more acute than ever. In its stark and often frightening treatment of memories and passings, Mark Kozelek’s latest collection as Sun Kil Moon often calls to mind the narrative voice of James Marsh’s film of Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. Kozelek’s is a weathered enunciation by characters who are at times apparently scarred less by events themselves than by the describing of them; emotion created rather than recollected in tranquillity.
Sun Kil Moon Benji (Caldo Verde Records) Benji, named for the lovable, Texas-lensed Seventies pooch, concerns itself with mortality, singer Mark Kozelek bearing witness to his own life and those who've passed through it. There's sex, drugs, crab cakes, and people you've never met and never will, including James Gandolfini and the children of Newtown, Conn., but their presence devastates nonetheless. With minimal instrumentation and backing vocals from outré folk stars like Will Oldham, Kozelek reflects on the people who've died and those whose passing is imminent.
Death, death, death, death. The Pale Rider gallops through Mark Kozelek’s latest LP via every imaginable avenue: relatives who die too young, the impending passing of parents, the random victims of serial killers and gun fanatics, accidental fire victims (two of them!), the euthanized, and, underlying this all, the death of our younger selves. For, in the end, that’s the real story behind Benji (Caldo Verde Records) — the middle-age awakening of mortality as the friends, relatives and acquaintances who people our lives lose theirs, leaving behind only memories.
There may be no such thing as narrative honesty in a song, but Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon represents the idea, at least, in large canvases and deep, oily hues. On “Benji,” he writes from a tunnel of self-absorption, casual and graphomaniacal and sometimes sour. Hear 15 minutes’ worth, and ….
Sun Kil Moon's last record, Among The Leaves, was the work of an exhausted songwriter throwing everyone he knew at the dartboard. What stuck out most was Mark Kozelek's long list of target characters: annoying fans reduced to the role of 'guys in tennis shoes', diehards with the post-show blues because their hero didn't play 'Katy Song', and condescended to ex-girlfriends, lamented as one-night stands. Most wickedly, he disregarded other songwriters.