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Albums of 2014 #2: Sun Kil Moon: Benji

Calling Mark Kozalek’s masterful sixth Sun Kil Moon studio album Benji a great record doesn’t even begin to do it justice. To talk about it in the relatively trivial terms of something you might put on in the background while you cooked a meal or cleaned the house just doesn’t feel right; it wasn’t really a driving album, and you certainly couldn’t press “play” and settle down with your iPad to browse your favourite websites. Like a novel, Benji demanded every last bit of your attention, Kozalek filling each line with the kind of details most lyricists would never dream of putting in a song, weaving meandering, interconnecting stories about the mundane, odd and – most often – tragic events that had coloured his life, and the lives of those around him, over the last few years around sympathetically sparse classical guitar and soft rock arrangements. On opener “Carissa”, Kozalek dolefully recounted hearing that his cousin had died: “Yesterday morning I woke up to so many 330 area code calls/ I called my mom back and she was in tears and asked had I spoke to my father?/ Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire in her yard in Brewster/ Her daughter came home from a party and found her/ Same way as my uncle, who was her grandfather/ An aerosol can blew up in the trash, goddamn, what were the odds?” A sad tale, told in the same rambling way a friendly drunk might regale the person on the next bar stool, but whilst the devil was in the detail (i.e. the missed calls from unidentified Ohio numbers, presumably family members whose names Kozalek had never added to his phone’s contact list) it was the “hook” – in as much as a song like this can have one – whose simplicity struck like a well-placed gut-punch and brought a tear to the eye: “Carissa was thirty five/ You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” Death was all over Benji: death from illness, unexpected deaths following freak accidents, mercy killings, mass murder, fear of the inevitable loss of a parent. But, incredibly, it never came across as particularly morbid, Kozalek channeling that bar-room storyteller to imbue its chapters with humour and real warmth. The same uncle mentioned previously – cousin Carissa’s grandpa – is later eulogised in “Truck Driver” as a loveable redneck, whilst “I Love My Dad” praises the guy that would use brute force to put the young Kozalek in his place but also taught him “how to care for those in need and show respect” by taking him round to his disabled buddy’s place to watch wrestling on TV and “shoot the shit“; “Jim Wise”, meanwhile, finds Koz, now in his forties, spending an afternoon with another of his father’s pals, an old man under house arrest and staring down the barrel of a life sentence after euthanising his terminally ill wife, the cruel irony being that he would have taken himself out too had the gun he used not jammed when placed against his own temple. It may sound like a dumb comparison, but Benji reminded me of The Wire – and in particular its “all the pieces matter” tag-line – in so much as both featured huge, sprawling ensemble casts, all of whom had parts to play in their respective bigger pictures, no matter how inconsequential they may have seemed individually. The family, friends and strangers Kozalek talked about here were all people that have shaped his life in some small or not-so-small way, and on Benji, like a travelling minstrel singer from days of yore, he did what the very first humans to put words to music did: he paid tribute. So here’s to his mom and dad, his grandma, his uncle and aunt, Micheline, Brett, Katy Kerlan, Mary-Anne and Deborah, Jim Wise, Mark Denton, Richard Ramirez, John Bonham and Jimmy Page, Ben Gibbard, Carissa and everyone else mentioned by name or by allusion; the folk legends of a future generation, immortalised in song.


About foamhands

My name is Michael Dix; I'm a decade or so past being down with the kids, but to me new music never gets old. Apparently I like music that sounds like faulty kitchen appliances and ritual slaughter; really I just like what I like, whether that happens to be indie, pop, punk, hip hop, metal, electronica, Afrobeat or jazz. Follow me on Twitter @FoamHandsBlog to receive notifications of new posts and the occasional random brain-fart, and please share links wherever you can. Enjoy!

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