Sun Kil Moon’s Folk Record ‘Benji’ Gleams With Sincerity

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Indie-folk troubadour Mark Kozelek has released his sixth studio album, Benji, under the moniker “Sun Kil Moon” (the official band name, although Kozelek is pretty much the only member). This new release features 11 tracks that culminate in a deeply personal, melancholic, and mesmerizing album. What’s most striking is that Kozelek has taken the autobiographical approach to songwriting to unprecedented levels. While the album has a unique structure and unorthodox method of storytelling, Benji probably won’t be remembered for its mass appeal. In fact, nearly every song is an unblinking observation of life, death, and suffering, vocalized by Kozelek’s weary blend of talking and singing. Despite the album’s inexorable gloominess, Sun Kil Moon has produced some of the most sincere, honest, and candid songs ever released.

The concept and lyrics are easily the most recognizable feature of Benji. If nothing else, the album is extremely direct, detailing facts and reflections with fairly endearing simplicity. The opening track, “Carissa,” narrates how Kozelek’s second cousin, a 35-year-old mother of two, and his uncle were burnt to death in similar fire accidents. Many of the following tracks are equally brutal, and focus on shootings, murder, accidents, tragedies, suicides, losses, and regrets. One of the beauties of Kozelek’s lyrics, however, is that their descriptiveness makes it easy to vividly imagine each episode playing out.

While the tone is determinedly bleak, there are rare gems of positivity and happiness buried deep within Benji. Waves of nostalgia float in and out of Kozelek’s narrations. Tracks like “Dog” shamelessly reveal embarrassing details as Kozelek reflects on his teenage sexual exploits and failures. “I Love My Dad” is saturated with empathetic messages about race, class, and family while also entertaining with its laconic humor. A printed copy of the lyrics for any given song may resemble a short story. The problem is that, while many of the tales are riveting, Kozelek’s half-singing, half-talking delivery begins to sound like a rant every now and then. Some details are simple and charming, but a few feel mundane and meandering, which detracts from the story. Furthermore, Kozelek’s confessions and revelations may simply be too mopey for many to tolerate. Nonetheless, nearly every part of Benji feels heartfelt and cathartic. Kozelek willingly lays out explicit emotion and detail that make for a very organic sound.

The instrumentation on this album is remarkable as well. The production is natural and flowing. Almost every second of Benji’s hour-long runtime is dominated by acoustic melodies and elegant fingerpicking. Frankly, the guitar work alone could satisfactorily carry every song on the record without additional support. Luckily, while their use is selective, back-up vocals, nylon-stringed classical guitar, drums, bass, keyboard, and tambourine also kick in with beautiful impact. Some listeners, however, may be dismayed by the overemphasis on guitar-the music, while usually hypnotic, does get a little drawn out and sluggish at times. Still, there are excellent uses of sound effects and mixing, giving each song its distinctive atmosphere. It’s genuinely interesting how Benji easily captures multiple vibes without sacrificing its consistently melancholic undertone-it makes the album as a whole feel very connected.

Although it’s a wonderful composition, the most glaring problem with Benji is that it may appeal to a rather narrow audience. Listening to these four-to-10-minute monologues requires a certain kind of patience and commitment to appreciate. Indeed, it’s a style of music that may only be captivating and enjoyable for those in just the right mood for it. Also, while the forwardness of the lyrics has a refreshing degree of shock value, this can easily be a deal-breaker for casual listeners. After all, one doesn’t exactly listen to these songs for the catchy chorus. Still, there are many poignant moments in Benji that are truly memorable.

February 12, 2014

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