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Sun Kil Moon Drop 5,000-Plus Words of Sad-Bastard Knowledge on the Balls-Out, All-In ‘Benji’

Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon / Photo by Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: February 04, 2014
Label: Caldo Verde

We already knew a decent amount about Mark Kozelek — the insanely prolific, inimitably morose frontman for the legendary Red House Painters and now Sun Kil Moon, a man whose oeuvre includes full-LP tributes to both AC/DC and Modest Mouse, who has acted in Steve Martin’s Shopgirl and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, who’s not shy when it comes to expressing grievances about his critics or fans or ex-girlfriends — but now we really know him.

We know which of his family members has died, and in two grisly cases, exactly how. We know his friends from the old neighborhood in Massillon, Ohio: Mark and Brett and Rick Stanyon. We know he’s got a gut, and that lately his prostate’s been buggin’ him, that he pees too much, that his “first fuck” was a girl named Maryanne, that he loves his dad and is going to be inconsolable when his 76-year-old mom passes away. We know that the guy who first signed him lives in Santa Fe, and that Kozelek is utterly grateful to this man for having spotted his talent once upon a time, because even though the singer-songwriter “can’t shake melancholy for 46 years now,” at least he’s been able to exist in the “musical world he was meant to be in.”

We know all this because Kozelek tells us, over the course of the 5,287 words of lyrics that make up Benji, a gob-smacking collection of bare-bones, gut-punch, all-in songwriting named after the cute little dog from the cute little movie that Kozelek saw as a kid, at a theater with his Grandma, who was “diagnosed at 62” (with what goes unspecified) and lived in Huntington Park in Los Angeles, which is where he’d get ice cream and throw French fries at pigeons with little Cyrus Hong. Are you starting to get the idea?

This guy has written 40-plus albums of material, so it’s saying something that Benji is one of his more challenging listens. It’s clearly a Mark Kozelek Production — mostly acoustic, first of all, plaintive, and, yes, melancholy, still vaguely sonically in the orbit of such usual suspects as American Music Club, Smog, etc. The sad-bastard finger-pickers. But it’s also at times defiantly monochromatic, with elliptical guitar figures that stretch over measures and measures, the words just spilling out, their cadences blurring with the background, so that everything meshes and unfolds methodically but at times impressionistically, so you catch fragments of lyrics one second then get lost again, because Kozelek never stops singing, he just goes and goes. And so acoustic explorers like John Martyn or John Fahey are good touch points, but so are acts like Battles or Fuck Buttons or Steve Reich. Indeed, such experimental music’s unsettling but awesome layering feels as worthy a reference here as, say, Bert Jansch’s acoustic immediacy.

Also, Benji is dark. How dark? Put it this way: The first song is “Carissa,” about the singer’s second cousin, who died at the age of 35 (that’s basically the chorus), completely randomly: An aerosol can blew up in a trash can and she burned to death. But here’s the thing: Not only is this the first of many deaths Kozelek recounts, it’s one of two aerosol-can-related deaths suffered by members of his family, the second being his uncle, on his uncle’s birthday, no less. “God damn, what were the odds?” asks Kozelek. “How is it that this sad history repeated?”

The record is also funny. Like, not side-splitting, but endearingly wry: “Dogs” is Kozelek’s answer to “88 Lines about 44 Women,” wherein he recounts a long list of sexual experiences, beginning with heavy petting (he was “bald,” but “when I touched her down there she was blossomin'”) and ending with a “sweet gal” with whom he visits Red Lobster. Elsewhere we learn that “When I fuck too much I feel like I’m gonna have a heart attack,” and that “The Sopranos guy died at 51 / That’s the same age as the guy coming to play drums.” One minute he’s singing about serial killers and school shootings, the next he’s musing about “fix[ing] up my kitchen, hiring a plumber.”

Again, there are 5,287 words of lyrics on this album, the delivery of which sounds at first stream-of-conscious, but clearly isn’t: Themes double back on themselves after long digressions, while details about family and friends crop up in multiple places, the whole thing coming off like an epic poem some enterprising comp-lit major might compare to Ulysses. But then the music is disarmingly straightforward: On most of the songs, it’s as swollen and sluggish as rain clouds. Harmonies and double-tracked vocals, pianos and light drums — these sounds dot the landscape, break it up somewhat. But for the most part, we’re out on a sonic steppe, and its desolate out here.

For example, though it has an actual beat and a guitar solo that accompanies a lyrical jab at Nels Cline (why not?), “I Love My Dad” is basically just one riff, a plucky stomp that perfectly complements some of the album’s funniest lines (“When I was five I came home from kindergarten crying ’cause they sat me next to an albino”). Similarly unadorned, “Jim Weis” features a Rhodes piano riff that sounds like something out of a nursery rhyme juxtaposed against the story of the title character, who “Mercy-killed his wife in a hospital at her bedside / Then he put a gun to his head but it jammed and he didn’t die / He awaits trial,” so Kozelek and his dad pay him a visit bearing food from Panera Bread. Actually, that line is worth quoting in full: “Brought him food from Panera Bread / The snoring son rolled out of bed.” The fuck?

Via the jaunty “Ben’s My Friend” — the album closer, and the only other rock song — we now know that Kozelek had “a pretty slow and uneventful summer,” toward the end of which he was struggling to finish this record, which prompted him to go see the Postal Service (why not?). We learn that he had a backstage pass because, duh, Ben Gibbard’s his friend, but that Kozelek didn’t want be the “guy with the gut hangin’ round like a jackass,” and so he gave the passes to “two cute Asian girls,” then drove to Tahoe to relax in his hot tub and ponder the fact that Ben’s “out there sellin’ a lot of tickets,” and while there’s “a tinge of competitiveness,” it’s all good because “Ben’s my friend and I know he gets it.”

Kozelek eventually gets over what was apparently serious enough to categorize as a “meltdown.” A couple days later, he gets back in the studio “doin’ 12 hour shifts / Singin’ a song about one thing or another.” At 47, with over 40 albums under his belt, you might have thought we’d have known most of what there was to know about Mark Kozelek. Turns out we weren’t even close.