Sun Kil Moon
Benji (Caldo Verde)
It’s a helluva time to be a Mark Kozelek fan. Just six months after releasing my favorite non-black metal LP of 2013, he returned with his sixth album under the Sun Kil Moon moniker. Benji is a masterpiece — an immaculate celebration of storytelling, that reads more like a great novel than a meer collection of songs. It’s 11 tracks are like vignettes in a film, working both as self-contained, digestible stories and key pieces of a larger narrative.
That narrative is undoubtedly about people. Benji introduces us to a rich ensemble cast made up of the folks who have colored Kozelek’s life. From his parents to childhood neighbors to small town crooks, the 47 year-old paints vivid, beautiful portraits of his subjects, focused on telling their stories with grace, respect, and honesty. Refraining from flowery languages (even adjectives altogether at times), he forces the listener to use the small details of each story to gain all-important context. If Hemmingway played guitar and was born 50 years later, maybe this is the record he would have written.
Nearly all of Benji‘s 11 songs touch on death, often of one of Kozelek’s loved ones. For example, lead track “Carissa” tells the crushing story of his second-cousin, a 35 year-old reformed wild child and mother of two, who perishes in a freak house fire in her nondescript Ohio hometown. Besides being an engulfing story, the song contains an incredibly illuminating passage. Kozelek admits that though he didn’t know her well, he felt compelled to return to Ohio for her funeral in order to, “to find some poetry, to make some sense of this, (and) to find a deeper meaning.”
In a nutshell, this is what Benji is about, and it is why Kozelek is such an important songwriter. Those who call him a miserablist are missing the point. Kozelek’s stories shine a light on what makes life so special and remind us that everybody’s story is worth poetry and deeper thought. Yes, he’s dealing with tragedy, but he’s doing it desperate to gain some understanding of why these things happen and what they mean when they do. While death is around every corner on Benji, so is life. Whether he’s waxing starry-eyed about seeing hummingbirds for the first time (“Micheline”) or penning a tearjerking (don’t listen to in public) love song to his mother (“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), Benji is just as much about light as it is about shadows. And it’s what makes it such an incredible, powerful statement.