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Sun Kil Moon
Benji Robin Smith , February 26th, 2014 07:27

Sun Kil Moon's last record, Among The Leaves, was the work of an exhausted songwriter throwing everyone he knew at the dartboard. What stuck out most was Mark Kozelek's long list of target characters: annoying fans reduced to the role of 'guys in tennis shoes', diehards with the post-show blues because their hero didn't play 'Katy Song', and condescended to ex-girlfriends, lamented as one-night stands. Most wickedly, he disregarded other songwriters. 'Not Much Rhymes With Everything's Awesome At All Times' was one of the record's cruel standouts, a quickly rhymed and lazily picked tune that sounded as if it had been thrown off in record time. An air of arrogance permeated it, as if Kozelek felt he had more talent in his little finger than his peers had collectively. He wrote his own review of Among The Leaves in that very song, deciding he'd earned the title 'experienced songwriter' simply by living longer.

Despite its many characters, nearly every story on Among The Leaves was about Kozelek; the nameless person in front of him was a mere archetype. The record only deserved its prettiness when he externalised, pulling the narrative thread, for a rare moment, in the lives of others. Its best song was 'Song For Richard Collopy', a tender obituary for a guitar fixer who helped Kozelek out with his old Gibson. Instead of zone in on Kozelek's ego, 'Richard Collopy' described a man who kindly helped make other people's lives easier, kept to himself, and then died. The song was as lyrically straightforward as the rest of Among The Leaves, only rhyming its circumstances incidentally, but its focus on someone else was what made it sing. Instead of abandon other people, observing them as currency, it treated Richard Collopy like the waitress serving cops on Ghost Of The Great Highway's 'Glenn Tipton'; both lives touched Kozelek enough for a genuine tribute.

Benji picks up where 'Richard Collopy' left off, dropping Kozelek's self-serving musings for a record that looks impartially at death and tenderly at the deceased. It's just as committed to his newer, more representative style of songwriting, which holds metaphor to be poison and remembering names the height of poetry. The most important thing about any given character on Benji is their first name, the second most important their proximity to death. Kozelek knew very little about the eponymous 'Carissa', his late second cousin, but asserts a mission statement of sorts for the record in her eulogy: "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." The line feels disturbingly opportunistic, at first glance, but actually relates to the gentle nature of Kozelek's write-what-you-see approach. He's found songs in strangers before now – people who have done little more than serve him coffee – and Carissa is one of them. She's a stranger who shouldn't have been.

The difference is that Kozelek wrings no poetry out of her life, and very little out of Benji as a whole. It's a record of unclothed anecdotes and starkly genuine thank yous, more of a memoir than it is a record. That might explain why it's so affecting at times and so cold at others; some stories matter more than others. Kozelek's melancholia overtakes his music in certain glorious moments, but at others he sounds indifferent, retelling stories with cold neutrality. 'Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes' is a drab composition filled out with acoustic bass notes and urgent nylon-stringed guitar, but its lyrics are intangible, conflating the death of actor James Gandolfini with Kozelek's decision to finish his record and hire a plumber for his kitchen. More than anything, the dichotomy is bizarre; the lyrics are so closely related that it sounds like nothing matters at all. It's not the style that's at fault, though – it's the execution. Kozelek's voice is disguised in 'Richard Ramirez', moving too fast to even contemplate on its losses. The same antithetical narration is later used for 'Ben's My Friend', the record's closer, but in a way that makes for one of Kozelek's best songs. It's a repetitive tale of his daily routine, composed around refrains that are either bizarre, such as Kozelek sombrely humming "blue crab cakes" with empathetic backing vocals, or sincerely touching – at one point, he recalls checking in with his mother and starting to worry about her health all over again: "I worry to death".

Those two refrains split the difference in the literal style Kozelek has championed over the last three years. On one take, it plays like a pisstake, a shopping list of everything that's happened in this wiseass's life; 'blue crab cakes' is just one more thing Kozelek ate today, and his singing about lunch is genuinely funny, especially on a record that piles on death so relentlessly. But then he sings 'I worry to death' – with the same cadence and tenor, over the same thickly strummed guitar chords – as if it's only as important a thought as lunch. Kozelek's lack of filter suggests that each and every event heaves with its own weight. Between those two lyrics, Benji feels like equivalent a Tumblr parody account that started off as a joke but became genuine without realising it; its closer starts with a light lunch, but tragedy bleeds into it. In a song he wrote about crab cakes and songwriting and Ben fucking Gibbard, Kozelek's mother comes to mind without his permission.

Despite conveying Kozelek as a tired and aging old bean who can barely climb a gentle hill, 'Ben's My Friend' is the most motivated he sounds all record. The questionable sax that augments the song's dramas gives him a sense of purpose, and the layering of his voice gives the record's twilight the motivation to keep going. Prior to that, though, he sounds defeated and often disinterested, content to play through quiet, subtle stories that ignore the listener's gaze. 'I Love My Dad' is a meta slice of dad rock that sounds like it's been conferred from one person to another, a la The Dismemberment Plan's wispy 'Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer'. Kozelek turns 'I Love My Dad' into a slice of silly-era Wilco, utilising a hopelessly groovy bass line and a grinning choir. It carries on for six minutes, detailing the internal conflict Kozelek had with his father, but next to 'I Watched the Film The Song Remains The Same', the record's loneliest and stillest piece, it sounds obnoxious.

Benji is a messy record in that way, a folk rock maze not dissimilar from Among The Leaves. Earlier Sun Kil Moon records obsessed over their themes until they couldn't break away from them; April, in particular, was a dozy record strummed and sung with a sympathetic homogeneity, as if Kozelek was having a recurring nightmare about the same break-up. "I slept with her so many times", he sung wearily, like he couldn't wake up and stop it from happening. Admiral Fell Promises was also self-contained, an exhibition on Spanish guitar by a wannabe sage. But Benji's fear of mortality is performed loosely, manifesting in a myriad ways. It comes out in overcast folk songs like 'Dogs', a meagre tale of Kozelek's sexual encounters that resembles Okkervil River's creepy murder ballad 'Westfall' – "she slid down between my legs / and man she could suck", he sings, his voice crackling. It comes out in the couplet about his parents, the first called 'I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love' and structured like a country rock madlib with dozens of different ways of saying the same thing: don't fuck with my family. It comes out in dad rock and in sparkling guitar duals that last ten minutes. All in all, Benji is overstuffed with death, and doesn't know what to do with it – there are so many ways to react to it, and eventually the record bursts apart.

Benji would have worked better as a series of EPs, playing to Kozelek's strength as a songwriter of certain stylistic preferences. The Portugese guitar simmers in the background of some songs; the candidness of others is written off with playful choruses and wacky synth lines (the best sequencing of the record is 'Jim Wise' with 'I Love My Dad', two kindred spirit songs). Kozelek's obsession with narrative songwriting is easy to parody, and often painful to listen to, but he remains a versatile musician, able to configure folk music into its every form.

The problem with Benji is that it is too full of death and anecdote to know what to do with it all, and Kozelek is unable to tie tragedy to anything in particular. You could say it's a record about him accepting misery, and at one point he seems to offer that as the record's surrogate maxim – "I will go to the grave with my melancholy / and my ghost will echo my sentiments for eternity" – but it doesn't necessarily ring true for this record, because he also says some tender things: here's to dads, thanks for the record deal, I forgive you. Benji is disorganised as hell, but that's okay; life isn't always prosaic. And no matter how plainly you put it, death doesn't often make sense.

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