Press Play 12/22/15: The Beauty of ‘Benji’

Examining Sun Kil Moon’s tragic opus

Conor Battles, Editor-in-Chief, Arts & Entertainments Editor

In music, the devil is in the details.
All great music has some little detail; a well-placed minor chord at just the right time, or a subtle key change underlying a change in lyrical content; that pulls the listener in. Every year has a “moment,” a particular detail or touch that manages to perfectly encapsulate 365 days’ worth of releases. Last year, it was the soaring sample of 1970s Hungarian rock band Omega over Frank Ocean’s smooth, ethereal voice at the climax of Kanye West’s Yeezus standout “New Slaves.” That final minute and a half, an unexpected, sweepingly epic conclusion to what was previously an intense, minimalistic song, stood out as the best that music in 2013 had to offer.
Whereas “New Slaves’” monumental outro is marked for its opulence, the moment of 2014 will be remembered for its simplicity.
When former Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek formed Sun Kil Moon in 2003, it was initially planned as a continuation of the style of his old band. Only after recording 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises as a solo performer, shedding much of the instrumentation behind his earlier work, did Kozelek hit his stride. In 2014, he released Benji to widespread acclaim.
 Benji is a long, slow record, that is no doubt difficult to listen to in one session. Kozelek faces middle age with a sorrowful, bitter sensibility, and confronts death in a way that few other artists dare to; over the eleven song tracklist, only two are not about someone dying.
Rather than wax poetic over the philosophy of death and decay, Kozelek presents stories that are almost painfully real to listeners. A former teenage mother reaching middle age – Kozelek’s second cousin, in fact – dies unexpectedly after an aerosol can explodes in a trash fire in “Carissa.” The same sequence of events claims the life of his uncle in “Truck Driver.” In “Jim Wise,” a cancer patient is “mercy-killed” by her husband, while in another song, Kozelek contemplates how Richard Ramirez – the infamous “Night Stalker” of the 1980s Midwest – was able to die peacefully of natural causes in prison. It’s unfair, cruel even, but that’s just the nature of death. Benji is one of the greatest artistic statements of that fact in recent memory.
Kozelek is a lazy songwriter. He rhymes only occasionally, seemingly only when he can think of one. On most of the songs, he doesn’t even sing; he simply talks, telling the story over sparse guitar and drums. However, his gift to take this lazy, minimalistic style and combine it with his amazing storytelling ability makes Benji one of the most visceral albums in recent years.     There is no individual moment that stands out on Benji. It is an album that must be taken in full to appreciate. Elegantly simple, depressingly true, Benji is one of the most emotional moments in recorded music.