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Sun Kil Moon‘s sixth album, Benji, is an emotionally raw record from a quiet, ageing singer-songwriter — Mark Kozelek of 90s slowcore outfit Red House Painters — who has come to terms with mortality in a world full of death.
But while the subject matter may seem overbearing for an album spanning one hour-plus, it ends up quite the opposite due to Kozelek’s tenderness, arresting authenticity, and charm. Really, it’s a masterstroke in lyricism.
Like an oral rendering of scribblings from the darkest pages of his own stream-of-consciousness memoir, Kozelek puts chapters addressing the deaths of relatives and others close to him amid the banal, everyday objects of modern living, and does so with poetry. On Truck Driver, the details of his uncle’s freak death are signposted with references to KFC, Happy Days, and Domino’s, with heart-rending results.
Yet somehow, amongst the gloomy memories, Kozelek is able to soak his lyrics in what appears to be his guiding principle: human life, while meaningless and absurd, still requires due diligence and respect.
It’s evident in moments like the grief-stricken Pray For Newtown, in the heart-stopping Micheline, where he laments the passing of friends like handicapped schoolmate Brett and his own grandmother, and on the melancholic Jim Wise, which speaks of the attempted suicide of his father’s friend after mercy-killing his own wife.
But Kozelek is able to push more than merely his principles through songs, displaying an appreciation of immediate family – a path rarely tread in indie rock. On I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love he meditates on the inevitable absence of his mother over gentle guitar picking: “She’s the closest friend I have in my life / Take her from me, I’ll break down and bawl / And wither away like old leaves in the fall“. On the country-tinged hootenanny I Love My Dad, he thanks his father for the small-town teachings, which, while sometimes violent, helped shape him nonetheless.
Kozelek’s lyrics are given even greater potency through his unique delivery, which tends to drive and inform the music differently on each track. On Carissa, he’s trailing off about a second cousin’s freak death without any regard for the 4/4 meter.
On the Neil Young-like album highlight Dogs, Kozelek changes the lengths of verses according to how much detail he wishes to disclose about his first kiss, love, “oral taste,” and fuck, with the music reassembled around the lyrics. Elsewhere, it’s as though there are two Kozeleks, as he confusedly haunts himself with a serial killer, like some kind of Beat poet, on Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes.
But what really makes Kozelek stand out from contemporaries like Daniel Johnston, Bill Callahan and Songs: Ohia, is that his words seem simultaneously incomplete and whole, casting Kozelek as an enigma that you’d like to better understand. And by the end of the album, you get the sense that Kozelek wants to better understand himself too — with any luck, he’ll do it while delivering more Sun Kil Moon albums, before we all shuffle off this mortal coil.