For the longest time, I evaded listening to Sun Kil Moon, so it was to my enormous surprise that Benji would not only become my favorite album of 2014, but one of my favorite albums of all time. Sun Kil Moon, otherwise known as Mark Kozelek, appeared somewhere in the midst of 2002 after the cessation of The Red House Painters. Kozelek began the group with two bandmates, but as Sun Kil Moon reached critical acclaim, the act became a one man show; and this contributes to the importance that Benji embodies. Benji is a collection of personal reflections as Kozelek’s life stretches into the iffy, uncomfortable, middle-aged years that can either enhance or destroy an artist’s musical direction; in Kozelek’s case, Benji, written as Kozelek turned 46, is augmented with beautiful acoustics, guileless lamentations, and offbeat confessionals that make Sun Kil Moon’s album personal with a vague sense of interconnection between singer and audience.
Benji. The name in itself holds an obscured central meaning for Sun Kil Moon’s Kozelek. Mentioned in “Micheline”, a memoir for prominent figures in Kozelek’s 46 years of life, Benji seems to have an implicit meaning for the face behind Sun Kil Moon. Benji is an abstraction of Kozelek’s youth, one of those details that many of us can relate to; a small event, such as seeing a movie called Benji that seems insignificant at the time. But for some reason, this minute event remains as one of the keystones of a person’s youth. This can be said for many of Sun Kil Moon’s songs from Benji, one of the most prominent being “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same”, which is Kozelek’s stream-of-consciousness narration of his childhood. Sun Kil Moon’s early 2014 album is scattered with puzzle pieces of nostalgia. It feels as though Kozelek doesn’t care if the words of his lyrics sound pretty or poetic, and that he simply yearns to get them off of his chest and out into the open. That being said, Benji can be considered a meditative album for Kozelek, a method of coming to terms with the imminence of growing old.
Several tracks exemplify the personal aspect of Benji, such as the first track “Carissa”, in which Kozelek deals with the tragic loss of an extended family member through the usage of memorialization. The blunt urgency of Kozelek’s lyrics combined with the soft and resonant acoustic guitar chords create an unusual yet compelling composition. In fact, little to no one can relate directly to the nearly unbelievable tragedies that have occurred in Kozelek’s life: Mark Kozelek’s friend who had an aneurysm, two separate incidents of Kozelek’s family members perishing in the flames of an aerosol can explosion and a friend of Kozelek’s father who waits on death row for taking the life of a wife on hospice; the list of specific life experiences goes on and on. It seems as though trials and tribulations are unending in the life of Mark Kozelek. But they do not go unnoticed, for the graceful arrangement of Benji brings these instances to life. After listening to Benji, the listener feels as though they know Sun Kil Moon personally.
Benji is a pleasant surprise to say the least. The confessional album thrusts itself to the ears of the public and sits there waiting as an honest, meandering story of growing up. The beauty of Benji is striking and only improves upon further listening. Kozelek utilizes elements of Nick Drake’s instrumentation and Bob Dylan’s lyrical style with a touch of Elliot Smith’s melancholy moodiness to create a wonderfully folksy album. Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is an earnest tap on the shoulder by a stranger at a coffee shop who turns out to be an endlessly interesting. Sun Kil Moon’s album is an earful from start to finish, and serves as a thought-provoking piece that causes you to look back on your own life and measure the happenings that have helped to create your character. And if nothing else, you should listen to this album and appreciate the courage Kozelek summons to tell his story. Sun Kil Moon is a natural storyteller, and Benji is a modern and subtle small-scale masterpiece.