Mark Kozelek once did a musical guest spot on Nickelodeon’s Yo Gabba Gabba. Anyone who is even passingly familiar with his work will know what an odd pairing that is: a host of bouncy, kid- friendly synth or guitar-pop bands doing jaunty little numbers about friends or food vs. the sonorous, melodic drone of a Cohen-esque poet. It was something odd and jarring and I liked it all the more for that. His work has always flown just under the radar. As Red House Painters he achieved a brief notoriety in the indie press, and also for his album of acoustic AC/DC covers. As Sun Kil Moon he released a stellar debut that conjured up the stomping, stoned race of Neil Young, an acoustic set of Modest Mouse covers, and the supremely heartbreaking April before sort of falling off a bit into dense, though lyrical, folk drone. Benji, though, takes some of the fog off of that drone. On 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises I realized that I couldn’t really grasp on to what Kozelek was saying; it had become an impenetrable wall of words that sounded good but left me feeling slightly confused. That is not the case here; Kozelek is front and center with what he’s saying, at times intensely so. It’s as if he’s decided to make a confessional album, as opposed to an album that’s basically Andres Segovia with thick lyrics. Approaching 50 as he is, the confessions center mainly around mortality; opening track “Carissa” details the sudden death of his second cousin from a freak aerosol can accident, while “Pray for Newton” is his reaction to a fan letter asking him to send his condolences to the families of the victims of the Newton massacre. “Dogs” is a song about every girl he’s ever done something with, from the kiss he got as a five year old on up before throwing his hands wide and saying “Our early life shapes the types to whom we are drawn, it’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on”. “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same” sprawls over ten minutes and is pretty much as advertised. “Richard Ramierz Died Today of Natural Causes” hits a meaner vibe, curling through with a dark tone that starts off with the title and goes on to grouse about all the indignations suffered by himself and others when the notorious serial killer was still on the loose. A friend suffers an aneurysm in front of him in “Micheline”. “Jim Wise” details an act of euthanasia and attempted suicide. To say death haunts the album would be underselling the issue; to say that it it full of the stark, arbitrary, possibly unfair things that keep you up at night as you grow older would be closer to the mark. Benji is uncomfortable because of the truths that are embedded in these steady tales, and in that it’s easily the pinnacle of his career.
It’s a strange old world, isn’t it? You think you have someone pegged as a semi-successful folk singer with a career that’s probably not going to make it much further and then they release what might end up being one of the ten best records of the year. Strange old world.
-“Pray For Newtown”[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgaquGird4w]
-“Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes”