“It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on.” That’s how Mark Kozelek closes “Dogs”, the most confrontational and stomach-churning cut on new Sun Kil Moon record, Benji. It’s a great thesis for the rest of the record, really – Kozelek has witnessed some pretty insane shit, and much of it appears on Benji in some form or another. Whether it’s documenting a recent night at the Greek seeing the Postal Service or remembering back to a conversation he had with a friend of his dad’s who failed a suicide attempt after mercy killing his sick wife in a hospital, Kozelek tells every one of his stories in his signature weather-beaten mutter under the breath. If it were any other way, it wouldn’t be Kozelek. Benji comes on the heels of last year’s three Kozelek LPs, including the excellent Perils From The Sea with Jimmy Lavalle (The Album Leaf). But it seems that Kozelek saves his most confessional work for the Sun Kil Moon moniker – a hypothesis that Benji supports with painstaking and deeply effective strides. Each one of its songs tells a separate story about the pains of life and love and learning to be a better human being, one mistake after another. Benji is a masterpiece, beginning to end, from one of the best songwriters of our time.
The record opens with “Carissa”, a ballad about Kozelek’s second cousin who burned to death in a fire in her. As he recalls, this is Mark’s second relative to die in a freak accident fire (the first being his uncle, who is talked about on “Truck Driver”), and the last time he saw her before this was a family funeral. “Carissa was 35 – you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die”, Kozelek sings. The quiet innocence with which he tells the story is a baffling paradox. Why do impossible tragedies happen to undeserving people? This seems to be a question Mark asks again and again on Benji. “Micheline” tells the story of a mentally challenged girl from down the street whose welfare checks were stolen from her for years, and a fellow guitarist who got an aneurism from the way he held barre chords. Then, this is juxtaposed by “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”, which contrasts the heinous acts by the serial killer with his own relatively peaceful death. “Prayer for Newtown” talks about the glorification of violence by the media and the pain that the news finds a way to pain over.
Meanwhile, Kozelek finds himself in the middle of all this, himself still alive amongst all the death and destruction he’s surrounded by. While the innocent around him have bit the dust, Mark is plagued with guilt and melancholy in the past and the present. “Dogs” is a brutal, stark account through the decades of Kozelek’s experience with love and sex, and all of the confusion and darkness that can come along with them if they are taken lightly. While the song will make you squirm in your chair more than groove along, it’s a profound moment of self-understanding on Benji that gives us an all too familiar encounter with our muse. Mark sees the same darkness shrouding the world around him inside himself – what’s left is how to reconcile the two. “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” takes almost 11 minutes to recall years upon years of learning how to deal with the weight of the world. “I discovered I cannot shake melancholy. For forty-six years now I cannot break the spell. I’ll carry it throughout my life and probably carry it to Hell. I’ll go to my grave with my melancholy, and my ghost will echo my sentiments for all eternity.”
But Mark never finds himself overcome. Later in the same song, he finds a friend in Ivo Watts-Russell, who signed Red House Painters to 4AD in 1992. On “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Love My Dad”, Kozelek thanks his parents for loving him and guiding him through this tragic world as best they can – after all, that’s all anyone can ask. Like the blurry out the window cover art, Mark sees the horizon unsteady. Blood runs thicker than water on Benji, and though the water rises and drowning never fades from the horizon, Kozelek gives us a relatable and compassionate offering that nearly everyone can relate to on some level. Even thousands of years into our human existence, the mysteries of love and life and death are unsolved, and the opinions on these topics found in Benji are welcome with open arms. Mark Kozelek has given us another diamond in the rough, and though aging remains on his mind, he’s making every moment he has left a confessional one for all of our mutual benefit.
Benji is out now on Caldo Verde records. Sun Kil Moon will play the Neptune theater Friday, February 21. By some act of divine mercy, tickets are still available here, but do not wait on buying them.