After over 20 years in the music business Mark Kozelek, the king of melancholy, has released Benji, a record with his band Sun Kil Moon that despite its heaviness and darkness is also his brightest record to date. One thing that makes the record so dark is that most of the songs on Benji contain stories of people who have died or who are close to dying. What makes it really heavy is that these people have, in one way or another, deeply affected Kozelek. They are, for instance, his relatives or victims of serial killers. Another thing that makes the record heavy is that it has a lot of difficult-to-name tension. “Dogs”, for instance, is a nervous song about Kozelek’s love and sex relationships. All this death and anxiety, on the other hand, works as a contrast to light. When Kozelek is singing about his cousin’s death on “Carissa” he makes us respect the life she had and consequently our own life and that of others around us more fully. Even the title of the album references this lighter side. The title is taken from a movie that Kozelek saw as a kid and fell in love with. It looks as if it’s the innocence of this child that Kozelek has been searching for throughout the album.
There is a lot to chew in Benji, but slowly the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. The songs on the album consist mostly of autobiographical stories and the different characters in these stories sometimes show up in several songs, revealing different aspects of these people. One of these characters is Kozelek’s grandmother who usually shows up when Kozelek is singing about his childhood. Benji has a bunch of people who you learn to know and care about along the way. There is, for instance, Kozelek’s cousin Carissa, his friend Brett who “liked to play guitar and never hurt anyone” and Kozelek`s dads friend Jim Wise, who is waiting for a trial after mercy-killing his sick wife. These people were far from perfect and had screwed up in one way or another. They tried their best yet sometime they didn’t have the strength to try. They might have a worldview that was totally different from our own. Nevertheless, we cannot help but feel empathy towards them. In short, they all had a significant meaning while they lived. They might not have always understood it themselves, but we do, through Sun Kil Moon’s music.
Two people who get a special attention on the album by Kozelek are his parents. More specifically, he pays respect and unveils his love for them both through the music. However, the way he sings about them differs vastly. “I can’t live without my mother’s love” is an extremely beautiful song in which Kozelek reveals his deep and unconditional affection for his mother. His mother is quite old and it looks as if her approaching death has made Kozelek truly understand the significance of the love his mother has given him. “I love my dad”, on the other hand, is a track about a more complicated love between a father and a son. His father seems to have made many mistakes as a caregiver. As Kozelek repeats the line “I love you dad”, you can hear sadness, fragility and maybe desperation in his voice. Intriguingly, the song can also be interpreted as a working-class song. Kozelek sings that his dad did the best he could, being ”an 8th grade dropout” and it’s because of him that Kozelek learned to value humility, patience and diligence. This working-class atmosphere is supported by a simple blues riff that makes you feel like you’re in a boxing match. All in all both songs about Kozelek’s parents are ingenious songs about how necessary it is to feel loved by someone else, in order to experience your own life as meaningful.
With all the large themes and the diverse emotions that the listener goes through, the album feels as overwhelming as life itself. Kozelek has the ability to fit a lot of angst, sadness and fear into one song, but there is also room for love, humor and joy. Benji is also kind of a rebellious record, considering the times we live in. In a time when we are expected to be functional, effective and quick and when emotionality is often associated with weakness, it is comforting to listen to intimate and emotionally raw music such as this. And while pursuing our own goals might be difficult without pushing others down, it simultaneously liberating to hear Kozelek ask for forgiveness from a boy who he punched in elementary school just to heighten his own status in a group or how tedious it is to notice that there is tinge of competitiveness even between good friends. In conclusion, the ingenuity of this record is that it puts us face to face with the weight of existence yet inadvertently turns this into excitement and joy of living. This brings to mind the famous quote of the late Charles Bukowski, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire”.