Kozelek's bleak, autobiographical songwriting is a grand slam

c/o wikipedia.org

I have a lot of strong, positive opinions about a lot of things, music most chief among them. Have a conversation with me, and you will get half a dozen album recommendations gift-wrapped with glowing hyperbole and praise. But even I, with my immediate attachment to pieces of music and art that I like on first listen, try to be very careful with what I call “best.” It’s very easy to make grand statements about something being better than everything else, but it’s just too hard to back up a claim like that. Such categories are reserved for a critic who has truly approached a genre from every angle and can’t find a piece of work better.

Well, I have listened, I have felt, I have done the research, and I only have this to say: Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is the best damn album of the year, maybe the decade.

This is a bold claim, but I believe it with every fiber of my being. I didn’t care much for Mark Kozelek’s long-running folk project until this album came out. Over its 11 songs, Benji sweeps, swoons, begs, laughs, and crawls under the skin.

There are familiar elements, sure. Nylon guitar strings are plucked and strummed and buzz with a warmth that is almost tangible. Everyone has heard drum patterns like the ones played on this album. Everyone has heard a saxophone. The music throughout is very pretty. But being pretty does not make a great album. It’s the words that matter.

Songs have always been stories. It’s what engages the listener. But on this album, Kozelek doesn’t really tell stories. He narrates life itself, dropping all metaphor and artifice and just telling people’s stories in details so intimate they have to be true. Take the first line of the album. On the amazing “Carrissa,” Kozelek practically whispers in his warm-whiskey voice, “Oh, Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child/ And the last time I saw you, you were 15 and pregnant and running wild.” There is no flourish here, just beautiful detail.

Kozelek has developed a singular voice as a songwriter. The singer is always a character in his own stories, the guy in the middle trying to make sense of this world, like in “Carissa,” when he is coming to terms with the sudden death of his distant relative. Making his voice the only one the listener truly hears gives Kozelek the ability to deal with the intense complexities of his stories in the most personal, powerful way possible.

There’s an immediacy to these songs, as if he’s writing about these events while they’re happening, like in the lovely, brutal “Jim Wise,” in which Kozelek and his father visit an old friend while he awaits trial for manslaughter, or the absolutely astounding “I Watched the Film The Song Remains The Same,” a 10-minute long personal epiphany that devastates me every time I listen. Every detail (“Kentucky Fried Chicken was served,” to name one) adds to this effect. As listeners, we are directly wired to the brainwaves of one sad, smart, observant, empathetic, and beautiful storyteller.

I could certainly say more about this album, but I will just le aave you with this: Benji makes my skin hum and vibrate, alive with the beauty, the energy, and the empathy of Sun Kil Moon.

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