Autobiographical lyrics give life to melancholy album

Named after the 1974 film about a locally loved stray dog who assists in rescuing a pair of kidnapped children, Sun Kil Moon’s latest album “Benji” initially appears to ironically distance itself from its subject matter.

On album opener “Carissa,” Mark Kozelek, the artist behind Sun Kil Moon, describes plainly a woman who “burned to death last night in a freak accident fire . . . Same way as my uncle / who was her grandfather. / An aerosol can blew up in the trash.” The unlikelihood of having two family members die on separate occasions both from an object as commonplace as an aerosol can would suggest that Kozelek has adopted some distant persona, but the content of “Benji” is autobiographical.

Kozelek’s second cousin Carissa died last year at the age of 35 in just the way described above. The last missed opportunity Kozelek had to see her was at the funeral for her grandfather who died the same way.

To focus on the album’s title or some other lyrical feature that would appear to warrant mockery when considered in isolation would distract from its significance within the larger context of the album. A still deeper consequence of acting so carelessly may be a belittling of the source material, the actual events of Kozelek’s life. However, when Kozelek sings, “It don’t mean that I wasn’t / Meant to find some poetry to make some sense of this,” the listener is invited to critique his “poetry,” the lyrical content of “Benji,” and as with most confessional writing, there are some potentially embarrassing moments.

In part of “Ben’s My Friend,” Kozelek narrates a day spent with his girlfriend and uses the phrases “blue crab cakes” and “sports bar shit” as solemn musical refrains. Their repetition is meant to reflect his middle age “meltdown,” as he refers to it later in the song, but his dry delivery appears oblivious to the humor that can be seen in the chosen phrases.

In “Pray for Newtown,” a track some may dismiss as obvious pandering, Kozelek links together a number of mass killings and gauges public reaction to them, commenting on news media coverage and noting how quickly and uncompassionately everyone returns to business as usual. Although he is making the case that people ought to take time to reflect on these tragedies, at one point he sings, “And I’d just left Safeway / when I’d walked through my doorway / when a guy took a bullet to an island and shot up a bunch of little kids in Norway.” That he circumscribes the extent of the loss from the Utøya massacre in “a bunch of little kids” seems dismissive in a way that is comparable to the wider reaction he is condemning, though Kozelek immediately adds after it, “Called a few of my friends ‘round here, / but no one much really cared. / But I did / because I got a lot of friends out there.”

Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji” is essentially a memoir set to music, a description proven more apt by Kozelek’s long-winded lyrics, his song-speech delivery, his tendency to avoid clear metrical structures and poetic techniques (excluding end rhyme, though even his commitment there is often eschewed) and his unflinching look at so many of his own life’s events. More often than not, the embarrassing lyrical moments are encompassed in a more listenable whole that accounts for their awkwardness.

Whether the album is documenting plane trips home to Ohio for funerals, reflecting on mass killings, speculating on the fate of someone who performed a mercy killing or the inevitable death of his closest friend, his 75-year-old mother, death permeates “Benji.”

“Dogs,” a song about Kozelek’s relationship history that makes ample reference to la petite mort, provides a wider description of the album’s focus: “Get your own trash. The cycle’s on and on. / And nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. . . . It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on.”

This entry was posted on Monday, February 17th, 2014 and is filed under A&E. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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