Sun Kil Moon is a San Francisco-based singer-songwriter who released his sixth studio album Benji in February of this year. For the most part, the tracks on this record are stripped-back, acoustic recordings which allow Mark Kozelek’s vocals to come to the fore.
And it is his sincere, heartfelt storytelling of episodes from his recent past, of the people close to him – as well as those not so close – and losing some of them, that compose the real substance of the subject matter of this album. Opener “Carissa” is an eight-minute acoustic ballad that begins with the moment Kozelek hears that his second cousin was tragically killed in a house fire – a fate which also became of her father and which makes up the subject matter of track three “Truck Driver” – and how he needs to get back to Ohio to find out more about her life. That is followed by “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”, a beautiful song describing his mother as his best friend, even at 75-years-old, and his worry about who is going to look after him when she eventually moves on.
Track four details the spate of mass shootings in recent years before focusing on perhaps the most tragic in recent memory, Newtown. The solemn and sincere delivery in Kozelek’s voice, a tone which rarely, if ever, judges others throughout the record, allows him to tackle such sensitive subjects with decorum.
Then there’s “Jim Wise”, a track with a slightly clumsy yet gorgeous organ line that is about his father’s friend who assisted his wife in suicide before, poignantly, failing at his own. Again he is able to avoid sounding crass while addressing a deeply personal episode in a family friend’s life, this time delivering a few tongue-in-cheek lines in the process.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than one track that doesn’t mention death in one form or another. There are some funnier – if not necessarily lighter – moments on the album such as on the closer “Ben’s My Friend”. Here Kozelek documents a midlife crisis of sorts, detailing his ordeal going to see the Postal Service show, contrasting that with when he first saw and met the band back in 2000.
Then there’s “Dogs”, a memoir of the author’s stages in his sexual history. Beginning with his ‘first kiss’ with the blonde who subsequently hit him with her purse when he was 5-years-old, since giving him an irrational fear of females with that particular hair colour, through to losing his virginity to his ex-girlfriend’s friend. Behind and beyond the quips, however, are overtones of uneasiness and confusion at the game we’re all engaged in when it comes to attraction.
Overall, Benji details a very reflective period of Mark Kozelek’s life, which isn’t surprising given how many deaths he has suffered to friends, family and even those within communities he is only indirectly related to. His ability to lay his bare emotions out for the listener, as well as his capacity to remain philosophical and profound without being verbose and be humorous without being crass, make this one of the most honest, open and sincere singer-songwriter records in years.