Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sun Kil Moon - Benji

For whatever reason, songwriter Mark Kozelek and I have always more or less acted like ships passing in the night. Everything I’ve read about the guy’s records – created mostly under the moniker Sun Kil Moon – suggests that I truly should have been listening to him all along. I can’t tell you how long discs like April and Ghosts of the Great Highway have been on my radar, or how long I’ve been meaning to check out Red House Painters, Kozelek’s old band. Intentions don’t always translate into actions though, and year after year, I’ve passed over Kozelek’s records or forgotten to listen to them thanks to newer, shinier titles or other musical diversions. In fact, the only Kozelek record I’ve heard in full – a collection of Modest Mouse “covers” – is far and away his least acclaimed work and was probably the completely wrong place to start with a artist so skilled at capturing worlds of feeling and detail in his own lyrics.

Still, despite the fact that Kozelek took a critical beating for trying to adapt Modest Mouse songs – loud, long, thrashy things with complex time signatures and fascinating instrumental textures – into slow and ponderous acoustic songs, there was one track on Tiny Cities that struck a chord with me. That record closed with a cover of “Ocean Breathes Salty,” one of the two hits Modest Mouse had somehow managed to wrangle from their 2004 disc, Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and it was remarkable. While I quite like and respect the original version of “Salty,” I always connected more with Kozelek’s stripped back take. Something about the lyrics of that song, about how “time and life shook hands and said goodbye” or about a cutting phrase like “you wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?” just felt so at home in the calm, resigned hands of Kozelek. As a vocalist, Mouse’s Isaac Brock brings unhinged and unpredictable emotion to every song he sings, but Mark Kozelek has a voice that feels as if it was meant to deliver deep, profound statements about death, and “Ocean Breathes Salty” was squarely in his wheelhouse.

How appropriate, then, that Benji, Kozelek’s sixth full-length record under the Sun Kil Moon moniker, is a record embroiled in questions of mortality. Like other albums that use death as their primary ballast (Bob Dylan’s Tempest, Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans are just three recent examples), Benji parses difficult questions about the brevity of life and the sudden, infuriating randomness of death. As Ben Gibbard sang on “What Sarah Said,” “every plan is a tiny prayer to father time,” and that thought is channeled heavily and liberally here. Benji is, quite frankly, a blood bath, a long, meandering, eulogic prayer for people who had their whole lives ahead of them...right up until they suddenly didn’t anymore. In the album’s opening track, a beautiful, aching ballad called “Carissa,” the titular character gets blown to smithereens when an aerosol can explodes in her trash. The same insane fate also befalls her grandfather two songs later on “Truck Driver.” Both characters are relatives to Kozelek – his second cousin and his uncle, respectively – and you can hear the pain in his voice when he sings about them. More than that, though, we get his silent wonderment, a question of how the same bizarre and nasty fate could befall two people from the same goddamn family. It’s like lightning striking in the same place twice, and you can bet there’s some indignation raging through Kozelek’s mind when he delivers a line like “you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” I mean, fuck it if that isn’t just some cruel twist of cosmic injustice.

Kozelek doesn’t merely use Benji to mourn lost family members, though, or to take potshots at how utterly maddening fate can be. Sure, familial bonds form a strong backbone to the record throughout. There’s a song for each of his parents (“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Love My Dad”), and his grandma even comes up in the poetry of a few tracks. On the whole though, Benji is more complex than your average record about death. For every personally heartbreaking moment – like the phone call Kozelek gets from his mother in “Micheline,” informing him of the death of a close friend and advising him to reach out to the victim’s parents – there’s a jagged counterpart that forces us to think about what it means when death strikes people outside of our personal circles.

On two different songs – “Pray for Newton” and “Richard Ramirez Died of Natural Causes” – Kozelek ponders murders, reflecting on a nation that has almost become numb to the news of the latest shooting massacre on the news (the former), and recalling the fear once instilled in him by a notorious serial killer who has finally breathed his last breath (the latter). Both songs are about how death can become a sort of cultural event, transformed by the media into what Kozelek calls “things that mark time and cause pause.” In “Pray,” the singer recalls where he was when he heard about the Batman killer or the McDonalds shooting, and how he reacted to the news of the elementary school massacre in Newtown last December. In “Richard Ramirez,” he claims that “Everybody will remember where they were/When they finally caught the Night Stalker.” He even finds time to fit in a quick line about the late James Gandolfini, about the celebrity deaths that seem to wrap the nation in grief every couple months and remind us of “this getting older stuff.”

With all these pronouncements about the way that we as a culture react to death, it’s no surprise that Benji makes for a heavy and exhausting listen. “Pray” and “Richard Ramirez” – as well as “Dogs,” a song about adolescent sexual awakening and the death of innocence that accompanies it – are the darkest and most difficult songs on the record, employing more abrasive musical textures than, say, the softer and more melodic folk of “Carissa” or “Jim Wise.” Still, while these songs aren’t exactly likable or immediately accessible, they serve their purpose and hit hard in context, a fact that speaks volumes about the kind of record that Benji is. This is an ambitious disc, wrapped up in long lyrical passages and meandering songwriting structures in a way that could easily lose less attentive listeners somewhere along the way. With that said, Kozelek’s rich, detailed lyrics here are revelatory, and the way he delivers them, in his sad, low, heartrending baritone, is nothing short of entrancing. The record may be long, but its spell never once breaks, and that fact has easily made it one of my favorite albums of the year so far – even if I can’t honestly say that I love every song.

Everything great about Benji coalesces on “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same,” a sprawling and spellbinding epic that goes on for 10 and a half minutes and never once feels like it’s overstayed its welcome. At its core, “I Watched the Film” is about little more than Kozelek watching a Led Zeppelin concert film as a kid, revisiting it for the first time many years later, and finding that he is still moved by it in all the same ways as he was before. In other words, the film here is just another way of marking time and causing pause. Like a true music obsessive, Kozelek uses his wonderment and connection with a Led Zeppelin movie as a springboard for discussing the many events that took place in his life between his two viewings of it. "From my earliest memories I was a very melancholic kid," Kozelek sings in one of the middle stanzas. "When anything close to me at all in the world died/To my heart, forever, it would be tied." For years, it seems, sadness and heartbreak have ruled Kozelek's life, never allowing him to forget about the tragedies taking place all around him. In one stanza, he recalls the girl who sat in front of him in class until she was killed in a weekend accident "and quickly forgotten about at school." In another, he remembers clocking a kid in the face on the playground after taunts and baiting phrases took him past his breaking point. He relates both memories with sadness and regret in his voice, unable to let go of the things about which everyone else has forgotten.

As Kozelek re-watches The Song Remains the Same as an adult, his realization that he is still moved by the same elements of the film causes him to wonder whether he's changed at all as a person. Whether he will ever be able to "shake melancholy" and be happy. Whether he will someday find a way to stop clinging to every little tragedy that befalls the people around him. In “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same,” Kozelek seems to view that melancholy as the enemy, as something that he will take with him to his grave and something that will never let him forget all the bad times he’s had to weather. Luckily for him, music is an environment where that kind of overpowering sadness can be used as a weapon and turned into meaning for countless other people, turned into uplift. Against all odds, uplift is precisely what we get from “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” and from Benji as a whole, and Kozelek’s ability to find beauty and closure and resilience and meaning here, even in the darkness of death and in the unspeakable tragedies he's witnessed, is something that will resonate long after this wonderful record stops spinning.

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