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‘Benji’ a modern masterpiece

| Tuesday, February 11, 2014

WEB_Banner_BenjiEmily Hoffmann
This week has been rough. Diving into the bleak world of “Dorian Gray,” I spent the wee hours of the Sunday night crying with the broken-hearted Sibyl Vane and staring at that hideous portrait. Monday found me crawling through Goethe’s “Faust,” wandering around with the devil sneering at my shoulder. Oh, and this was after a month of reading Plath for my literature class. Suffice it to say I was not living the literary high life.

It seemed only appropriate that Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji” would catch my eye on Metacritic’s new album release list this week. A gauntlet of deeply personal tales circling around the theme of death, grief and remembrance, “Benji” looks upon life with an unflinching eye. However, the album is written and performed in such a way that the weight of the topic is very much present without being overwhelming Mark Kozelek, the singer and songwriter at the heart of Sun Kil Moon, had an unnerving talent for grappling with pain in a way that is at once highly emotional yet lacking unnecessary drama. It’s this balance between lyrical honesty and restraint that makes Sun Kil Moon’s music both approachable and urgent. In this way, “Benji” navigates highs and lows with grace and ease, inviting the listener into its intensely familiar world.

The dark subject matter of “Benji” is kept very down-to-earth through a combination of vivid images of relatable scenes, sparse arrangements and intimate production. It’s essentially a set of beautifully-told stories that explore the lives of individuals up to their ends. The subjects of “Benji” die in freak fires, on hospital beds, in school shootings, motorcycle accidents. Yet while these final events create a setting and purpose for Kozelek’s narratives, the lives, not the deaths, are at the heart of the songs. Opener “Carissa” finds him searching for the childhood he and his second cousin once knew, centering around a promise to make her name known. “Jim Wise” tells the story of a man who mercy-killed his wife but couldn’t bring himself to join her; Jim’s character is outlined through the small pleasures he enjoys during his house arrest before his incarceration. “Truck Driver” centers around the joy of his uncle’s funeral, which is “just how he would have wanted it, I’m sure.”

The raw honesty of the lyrics and intimacy of the stories’ settings are echoed in the music. Each song is built around Kozalek’s softly beautiful guitar lines which mirrors the mood of each song in turn. “Benji” also features a wider instrumental palette with drums and even a couple of soft analog synthesizers the twist in and out of the album. However the greatest musical jewel to be found here is Kozalek’s voice, an evocative, earnest drawl that rambles with a slight country twang through the stories he tells. Both musical and highly conversational, Kozalek’s vocals guide the songs into the golden personal sweet spot his lyrics guide us towards sharing with him.

Although so much death and darkness echo through the tales told in “Benji,” the human spirit that echoes through the album imbues it with a hopeful and comforting spirit. A couple of tracks dedicated to Kozalek’s family members also allows for breaks in the theme, allowing Kozalek to give thanks for that which is here in the midst of those who have gone. The mastery of Kozalek’s songwriting and poetry is enough by itself to make the album worth listening to. However, it’s the stories themselves that truly make “Benji” the modern masterpiece it is, an album that dives into the dark only to find a great light.

5/5 Shamrocks
Recommended Tracks: “Carissa,” “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” “Ben’s My Friend”
Similar Artists: The Mountain Goats, Nick Drake

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