In a recent edition of her Village Voice advice column for bands, Fan Landers, writer Jessica Hopper offered up this sentiment to an artist worried about the very personal aspect of his lyrics: “Your work belongs to you, this band and this song writing is an important outlet for you and so do whatever you need in order to keep it as a comfortable place for you to express yourself, authentically and without reservation.”
I kept returning to that line as I listened to this latest album being released by Mark Kozelek under the name Sun Kil Moon. Because if Benji and its predecessor Among The Leaves are any indication, the 47-year-old songwriter and master guitarist has found that comfortable place. And he’s expressing every last thought in his head.
The 11 songs here are an unfiltered id-spilling talking blues, set to the familiar sounds of Kozelek’s plaintive guitar playing and his softly emotive voice. And what he’s most interested in rambling about is his relationship with death and tragedy. He doesn’t pine over mortality. He picks apart the unfortunate passing of people in his family and outside of it: his second cousin Carissa, former Sopranos star James Gandolfini, the victims of Newtown. Though each reference appears in separate songs, the sentiment is consistent: hold on tightly to those you love before they’re not around anymore.
In its own way, Benji feels almost avant garde in its complete lack of metaphor and its clear, direct language about his bad back and eating crab cakes with his girlfriend. The album is also rather moving at times. “I Saw The Film The Song Remains The Same” is a gorgeous bit of nostalgia that relates his favorite elements of the titular film back to painful memories from his childhood. Kozelek’s plainspoken approach has an adverse effect as well. The treacly sincerity of songs like “I Love My Dad” sits a few feet away from “Dogs,” where he spells out his teenage sexual dealings in uncomfortably specific detail.
The cumulative effect of Benji, though, is a weird sensory overload. There’s just so much packed into each song. In “Micheline” alone, Kozelek wanders from an anecdote about a mentally challenged girl from his hometown to the death of a friend to totaling his parents’ car without so much as a pause for effect. And there are nine more songs just like it, overrun with detail and incident. You’ll be dizzy by the end trying to tie all the threads together.
Kozelek’s lack of reservation here is something to be begrudgingly admired, as his willingness to make yet another album that is solely for himself and those obsessive fans who want all the gory details of his past. For the rest of the world, there’s not much here to make any real connection with.