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The Examined Life: Sun Kil Moon’s Benji

Benji is the sixth studio album by Sun Kil Moon (Adam Payne-Reichert).

Benji is the sixth studio album by Sun Kil Moon (Adam Payne-Reichert).


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By Adam Payne-Reichert

When we were younger, many of us had an older relative, neighbor or some other figure whom we saw as almost immeasurably wise. We were grateful whenever these people would sit us down and tell stories about their youth, infusing each tale with valuable life lessons. Yet for some of us, our older, more discerning perception has not been particularly kind to these individuals. We realize now that these people are dropping a few too many socially inappropriate remarks, asking a few too many pointed questions about our liberal arts degrees or telling the same tired story a few too many times.

Enter Mark Kozelek, the man willing and able to serve as your new wise uncle. Kozelek, the man behind the longstanding singer-songwriter project Sun Kil Moon, released Benji — a sharp, unflinchingly honest look into the artist’s life in 2014. In this record’s 61 minutes, Kozelek packs in enough detail and engages in enough deliberation to satisfy any young person’s thirst for prudent advice. The album’s controlled yet organic instrumentation, largely centered around sparse and melancholic guitar riffs, is the perfect complement to the imminent fall weather.

The album opens with “Carissa,” a lengthy musing on Kozelek’s attempt to find meaning in a relative’s senseless, all-too-soon death. The intensely personal song details Kozelek’s distant relationship with Carissa, Kozelek’s second cousin, and related family history, setting the tone, thematically and sonically, for much of the rest of the album. From here, the album goes into “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” a song that would make any feeling person reach for the phone to call a loved one. But like many of the other songs on the album, this song’s loving, genuine lyrics offer multiple possible interpretations. Kozelek’s remarks could apply to anything impermanent that centers and gives value to life.

The rest of the album touches upon a number of other bleak subjects, including mass public shootings (“Pray for Newtown”), a friend of The sonwriter’s Dad who attempted suicide after mercy killing his wife (“Jim Wise”), the anxiety that arises when one surfaces mentally and notices the rapid passage of time (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”) and more. When singing about each of these topics, Kozelek treats the people and experiences involved with care, genuine attention and the careful awareness of a lifelong observer and thinker. In doing so, he refreshingly avoids much of the unrealistic insistence upon everlasting youth that pervades so much in popular music.

Yet Kozelek does not only deal in the dark. He does allow some breaks in this emotional tour de force; “I Love My Dad” and “Ben’s My Friend” deliver relatively upbeat lyrics. In the first song, he provides an even-handed yet affectionate picture of his other parent, relating with obvious gratitude the formative experiences he had with his father. “Ben’s My Friend” is a jazzy, swaying outro to the album, with Kozelek offering a stream-of-consciousness description of a slow day spent with his girlfriend. This song’s Van-Morrison-esque instrumentation does strike one as obviously different from the rest of the album, but then again, that is what a good closer should do.
The arrangements throughout the rest of the tracklist are interesting enough as to not become stale, bare enough to not distract from his thought-provoking lyrics and emotional enough to be consistent with the subjects being considered. The first three tracks are characterized by a similar sound, featuring plucking on guitar throughout the verse and back up vocalists adding gloom and weight to Kozelek’s singing. “Dogs” and “Newtown” add in thumping percussion parts and layered vocal tracking, introducing immediately noticeable variation to the sound of these songs. “Jim Wise,” like the closing track, is a significant deviation from the sonic palette developed throughout the rest of the album. The song’s reservedly optimistic piano heightens and recedes with Kozelek’s voice, adding color and humanity to Mr. Wise’s grim biography.

Throughout the album, Kozelek demonstrates a willingness to talk about what so many of us try to desperately avoid: tragedy, death, injustice, existential fears, etc. But unlike the try-hard tear-jerkers that also treat these subjects, Kozelek’s goal is merely to earnestly consider the realities and complexities of a life characterized by emotional peaks and valleys. The result is a transparent, emotionally trying, must-listen album.

Benji is the sixth studio album by Sun Kil Moon (Courtesy of Facebook).

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The Examined Life: Sun Kil Moon’s Benji