A Journal Of The Dark Arts

Folk Week: Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Sun-Kil-Moon-Benji-608x540File Under: Mutant Talking Blues

I’m not sure if irony is necessarily the appropriate literary device to explain the widespread attention and devotion being heaped upon the newest album from Mark Kozelek. More like a kind of bizarro logic, that speaks volumes about the cult of personality, and people’s desperate yearning for the real.

On Benji, there’s no stately gothic orchestration, no cavernous reverb, no electric guitar freakouts, hardly any post-production. There is hardly any condescension towards pop structure, no verse-chorus-verse, no singalong melodies. Instead, Mark Kozelek relies solely on the steady rolling hypnosis of fingerstyle guitar and a steady stream of real-life stories. Mark Kozelek has ceased playing the game, instead playing it straight, shooting from the heart.

Benji deals with real life, real people – dealing with universal themes, like age, sex and death, in a conversational manner, that nearly anybody can relate to. There is no moral, this is no fable – these things happen, and Kozelek captures and channels these events with his voice and guitar, like a true musician does. Most of these songs are morbid, melancholic, as he mentions on ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’. I think it’s a good sign, that people are responding so warmly to this record. Shows that people are willing to pay attention, to think about deep topics, even if they’re hard or unpleasant.

Look at Richard Ramirez Died Of Natural Causes, which evokes the feeling of paranoia and dread of with a low, ominous repeating guitar line. He starts off by reflecting on The Night Stalker, proceeding to reflect on the inevitablity of aging, and the many different ways to die. He puts us back in the early ’80s, when it seemed the world was rife with killers in the night, when the words ‘Armed And Dangerous’ could elicit real panic, making parents keep their parents inside at night. It seemed like the death of innocence, the harbinger of the widespread chaos that is the current state of the world. Mark Kozelek belongs to the generation that came of age during the ’70s, a generation that stood on the precipice of childhood and worldliness. It was an interesting transitional period, and Kozelek’s got an eloquent voice to describe the transition, assessing where we have come from, and what we’ve been through, and hints at things to come.

Author Jeva Lange, writing for, called Benji The Great American Novel‘ and then went on to say:

The reason Benji is successful is not because it’s a monument of storytelling or because it’s a lyrical masterpiece—although it is, in fact, a kind of masterpiece. Instead, Benji works because it is true. And beyond being true to Kozelek’s personal experience, it is, at its heart, an encompassing and convincing contemporary American portrait.

This cuts straight to the heart of what Folk Music is and can be, why we read, what place stories have in our life, and why I expressed such optimism at the beginning of this piece. In a world of crumbling attention spans and flashy Pop music begging for yr praise and yr dollars, Kozelek has created the opposite: a patient, thoughtful reflection on the ordinary. And people are lapping it up.

As music continues to disappear into the ether, we are all forced to figure out for ourselves how to relate to music, why and if it matters, and what place it holds in our lives. For those of us who have dedicated our lives to verses and choruses and chord structures, this shift can seem a bit devastating. It’s easy to imagine a world in which we are all greeters at Wal-Mart, or performing pedicures on the rich. This future depresses me, and sometimes fills me with despair.

But people are hungry for the real: real artists, real people. People being themselves. Honesty. Integrity. Care and craft. These intangibles shine through, and speak through the music. People can tell. The message comes through, loud and clear. And I find this intensely interesting.

In the song ‘Carissa’, where Kozelek tells the story of his second cousin who died in a freak aerosol can explosion, he says:

Carissa was 35/You don’t just raise two kids, and take out your trash and die/She was my second cousin, I didn’t know her well at all/But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t/Meant to find some poetry to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning/In this senseless tragedy, oh Carissa I’ll sing your name across every sea

I experienced almost an eerie sense of synchronicity, listening to this record.In a way, it seems as if mine and Mark Kozelek’s lives were intertwined.A lot of the action on Benji takes place in Ohio, and I also come from the midwest. The way he describes people burning trash in the yard, or KFC being served at a funeral; I cannot begin to express how many times I have seen or experienced these things. Or look at ‘A Prayer For Newton,’ in which Kozelek talks about dealing with all the random chaos of public shootings. I realized with a shock, as he rattled off names, dates and places, that I have lived in nearly every single one of these places. It stood the hairs of my arm on end, to see this connecting thread, to hear him rattling off all the places that I’ve lived. It shocked me awake, for these stories of real life, death and struggle to drop directly into my subconscious.

For that moment, we were connected, as i stalked the glistening streets of Portland, Or. Time, space and distance collapsed and we were all together, in the remembering. And the coping.

This is real, human, music. It speaks with depth, soul and authority, in a voice that anybody can understand. As an added perk, it also features some badass guitar playing, and brief cameos from Will Oldham and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. It seems, after 22 years in the biz, that Mark Kozelek is starting to get the respect he deserves, that people are finally ready, waiting and listening.

Hear it for yrself:Benji

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2 comments on “Folk Week: Sun Kil Moon – Benji

  1. 1537
    February 13, 2014

    He clearly reached into your very soul itself for the material here – Beware Mark Kozelek, he has powers!

    I worshipped Red House Painters and so after them and his AC/DC covers LP the man can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned.

  2. forestpunk
    February 14, 2014

    i agree. i think he’s always been something special. i adore RHP, but glad to see other people catching on. Sometimes it seems like he gets a bit dis-spirited, which is something i’m sure all of us creative types can relate to. I feel like the praise being heaped on this record is a victory for all of us that give a shit, and try to make something special.

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