February 18, 2014 / 9:08 pm

Sun Kil Moon-Benji

Released: 2/11/2013

7/7 stars


There’s a part in Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, the latest album to come from indie folk singer-songwriter and ex-Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek, that’ll make you laugh out loud. It happens between quiet saxophone and flamenco guitar and nestled inside Kozelek’s matter-of-fact recounting of seeing The Postal Service on the album closer “Ben’s My Friend.” As Kozelek grapples with accepting middle age in a restaurant, he finds solace in the “sports bar shit” that clutters the walls.
Okay, maybe the humor of the whole situation dies out when I try and type it up, but trust me. In the context of Benji, the moment is a sort of glorious, hilarious catharsis.
See, Benji is a sad album. It’s not a trendy or self-aware kind of sad, like The Smiths, nor is it a romantic kind of sad, like The Cure. Lyrics feel as though Kozelek tore them right out of his diary, and the results are devastating, such as on opener “Carissa,” in which Kozelek recounts how his second cousin died in a freak fire one night while taking out the trash.
Two songs later, we learn the same fate befell his uncle.
“Dogs” is another stand-out track, and arguably the most personal, with Kozelek rattling off every one of his ex-lovers by name before shrugging off his pain and sighing “It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on.” The admirable thing is, Kozelek never points fingers, as is so often the case in songs focusing on relationships. Instead, he chooses to simply recount his experiences over steady, solemn guitar chords.
That’s the beauty of Benji. It’s quiet, stark, and never overwrought. A lesser album would drown its arrangements in horns and strings in an effort to affect a reaction from its listeners. Benji sounds too tired to care. Even the track “Prayer for Newtown,” which could have, and probably should have, sounded like a cheap attempt to cash in on a tragedy for some fleeting emotion bares a quiet dignity and grace befitting its subject matter.
My first interaction with Benji came from a stream of the second track, “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love.” I smirked at the title, and listened to it right off the Pitchfork Review page, wanting to hate it, partly for that big red “9.2” stamped on the page like some sort of Seal of Approval from the Indie-Cred Bank, partly because of the dorky title. After fifteen seconds, I dropped everything, sat back, and listened.
I just can’t stress enough how exceptional an album Benji is. It’s gut-wrenching, honest, sometimes humorous, and always deeply humane. This isn’t the kind of wistful, vaguely melancholy indie pop music you’ll hear playing from a high-school kid’s iPod. Benji is a beautiful and emotionally exhausting account of a man’s search to find meaning in the death (and sports bar shit) that surrounds him.