2014 has been kind for Mark Kozelek. Always a talented songwriter, Benji brought about a renewed interest in the Sun Kil Moon. Kozelek has always been one for long songs, but started experimenting with his song structure in 2012’s Among the Leaves, writing lyrics in a stream of consciousness, confessional style. Benji sees him fully realize this style, the album full of evocative, deeply personal stories, relating growing up in rural Ohio and the sense of loss that creeps in as we age. This loss is both literal — Kozelek sings of family and friends who have died — but also a figurative loss, the loss of youth especially within a music industry has little room for old men, the detachment from family and friends, and empathizing with the loss of others. It’s an effective songwriting style. Kozelek knows which details to share, and that level of detail makes the songs feel deeply personal and deeply specific. Music as a medium struggles with complex narratives, especially ones that are narrow in scope, because generally people don’t listen too intently to lyrics, and it’s difficult to structure narratives in a way that works with the cadence of a song. That makes me especially excited that Kozelek has found a way to make effective stream of consciousness songs. It’s a structure that’s inherently difficult to bring to music, and I appreciate Kozelek was able not just to pull it off, but to make incredibly meaningful songs out of it.
Although the lyrics are a departure from modern folk music, the instrumentals aren’t a huge departure to what Kozelek has done previously in Sun Kil Moon. Kozelek’s interest in classical guitar has a clear influence, giving songs like “I Watched The Film ‘The Song Remains the Same’” an introspective feel. That sense of place and feeling drives most of the decisions for instrumentals here, always complementing the lyrics well. The scenes depicting rural working class Ohio in “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” are complemented wonderfully by the dark and gritty guitar tone, a more driving guitar tone depicting a sense of panic in “Pray for Newtown.” I think the song with the most effect instrumental is the one with the simplest, “Jim Wise.” A collaborative track with Owen Ashworth, best known as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, the instrumental is a simple song played on a cheap Casio keyboard. This gives the song a facile, childlike feel to it. “Jim Wise,” lyrically, is about a family friend under house arrest for attempting a murder-suicide of him and his wife. Unlike, say “Carissa,” Kozelek doesn’t attempt to understand or explain Jim Wise, simply recounting details of his visit and the trial. I don’t think this is out of a lack of sympathy, but from the standpoint that understanding Jim Wise is simply impossible. His thought process is unknowable. The instrumental adds to this feeling, its simplicity communicating the lack of understanding a child would have of the world around him. The visit to Jim Wise and his story are beyond Kozelek’s understanding, and this is reflected not just lyrically, but instrumentally as well. (I’d also accept the argument the instrumental adds a sense of innocence to the track, portraying Jim Wise more sympathetically. I think that’s also at work but don’t have as much to say about it)
The joy I find in Benji is in it’s lyrics. This is a lyrically dense album, both in that there’s a lot of lyrics, but also in that these lyrics incorporate a ton of different themes. Kozelek takes on a direct style, relatively free of metaphor, feeling like the sorts of stories you’d hear at, say, a family Christmas. Except a family Christmas that went all sad and introspective. The enjoyment in these lyrics are in connecting the dots between the short vignettes Kozelek offers and understanding his perspective on his life, his family, and his music career. Some of these ideas jump out right away, like the feeling of having people that are important to him die, or the disappointment of watching his youth fade away. These ideas are interesting and have their fingerprints all over the album, but they come up whenever anybody talks about the record. Instead I want to talk about a different idea that comes up a bit: the role of music both in the life of Kozelek and the people around him. There’s a bit of conflicting noise, but the best I can make out Kozelek sees writing and performing music as a means of making sense of the world. This idea is core to “Carissa.” I felt that, in an album about so many personal relationships, Kozelek started with the death of a distant cousin he admits he didn’t know at all. But it’s a direct representation of the process of making sense of her death, and trying to figure out why he’s so torn up about it. “Carissa” is a thesis of sorts for the album — this album exists not because Kozelek wants to tell, but because Kozelek wants to understand. A similar experience comes up in “Pray for Newtown.” Kozelek receives a letter from a fan asking him for prayer after the tragedy there, and in the next line Mark says he’s not the type to pray but he can sing a song. I see this as Kozelek saying he’s not going to understand Newtown through prayer, but through singing. Clearly singing is his way of coping with the tragedy, but I think that he offers his thoughts on Newtown in the second half of the song shows some sense making. I also think this leads to the sense of ennui that guides “Ben’s My Friend,” where the concert allows him to think about Ben Gibbard’s career and his own but the rest of the crowd doesn’t have the same relationship with the show as he does. But overall I think the sort of rambling feel that much of this album takes on sounds like Kozelek is trying to figure out something. It’s the stream-of-consciousness style itself that makes me think Kozelek sees music has a venue to make sense of things for himself.
I think Benji is a very meaningful album, lyrically the best written of this past year. And while I didn’t grow up in a rural working class family, I’ve spent more than enough time in rural Wisconsin for the people Kozelek sings about to feel very real to me. And on that basis alone I think this album merits the hype it has gotten. I enjoy the stream-of-consciousness style, and feel like it’s helped Kozelek write some very evocative songs that have revitalized the Sun Kil Moon project. But there is a downside to this style. Songs like “Truck Driver” or “Pray for Newtown” that I don’t enjoy that much go on and on and I usually end up just skipping them. I guess that’s the price you pay for this songwriting style — if a song doesn’t work for you, there aren’t going to be huge changes in how it sounds. But the rewards Kozelek reaps in being able to write strong songs that sound different from any other folk singer-songwriter far outweigh that cost.