John Lennon once described songwriting as a demon that he needed to get rid of. This idea of songwriting being in some way necessary is a hypothesis many would deride as inflated pretentiousness or a product of grave self-importance. In many ways, they’d have a point. Often it’s the decoration and frippery in music that sucks the life out of it. Broken hearts become schmaltzy sagas and grief becomes an individualist crusade towards contentment and closure. In these exercises of over-thinking, the most basic ideas can get lost in the tinsel and something that might have been, in some way, vital becomes throwaway and the ideas become disposable.
The ninth track on ‘Benji’ by Sun Kil Moon is called ‘Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes’, the first line of the song is “Richard Ramirez died today of natural causes”. Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon and Redhouse Painters) sings about Ramirez, then James Gandolfini, then Ronald Regan. This is what happens in on ‘Benji’. Life happens, in all it’s most stark incarnations. The opener, ‘Carissa’ is a song about Kozelek’s second cousin who he admits to not knowing that well. “Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire” are the words of his father delivering news over the phone. This is sung in what sounds like a detached state, Kozelek drifts between grief, disbelief and carelessness across 11 tracks that are the most frank and plain you will hear. Themes like sex, health and, of course, mortality are laid out like shirts upon a bed before a day of work. Cuts like ‘Dogs’ and ‘Jim Wise’ don’t demonstrate any kind process or operation. They are cinematic exposés of terrible events.
The 10 and a half minute beauty of ‘I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same’ doesn’t move forward or back but it stands frozen. A rumbling guitar line hovering beneath Kozelek’s unaffected vocals. A similar environment is built on ‘Micheline’. His anecdotal lyricism would seem strange atop convoluted production but the one-path nature of his instrumentation makes the entire record feel like like the longest and most miserable drink you’ve ever had with someone. You come away slightly heavy-hearted but you have a strange inclination to tell everyone you know about what you’ve just heard.
The final track, ‘Ben’s My Friend’ is an all-encompassing tale about finishing the album. Similar to the Droste effect wanderings of Spike Jonze’s ‘Adaptation’ (2002) or the head on mundanity of Tao Lin’s novel Taipei (2013), he honestly and frankly leaves no element of his process undiscussed. Kozelek ordering crab-cakes becomes the catalyst for one of the records few upbeat refrains, his sister getting a new boyfriend and growing used to eating venison or his dad still fighting with his girlfriend. These admissions are exposés of normality and the painful conclusions of life, that can mean Kozelek admitting, “I worry to death” or simply a story about trying to find a parking spot before a Postal Service show.
Life moves along on ‘Benji’ but it takes some time. The never-ending melancholy that rides beneath all of Kozelek’s work is at a forefront here. It’s a one-off kind of melancholy and not one that will be to everyone’s tastes, especially after an entire record of the stuff. You don’t feel sorry for the person writing these songs, nor do you feel burdened by their hardship. The naked truths of ‘Benji’ leave you feeling almost over-observant. So many stones are forcefully upturned and so many human principles are aired without premonition that you end up looking out and looking forward in the hope that the past will out of it’s own accord.
Words: Duncan Harrison