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Album Review: Sun Kil Moon - Benji

By Brian Broderick Barnes posted Feb 12, 2014 at 12:52 PM

Mark Kozelek's sixth release under his Sun Kil Moon moniker is an uncompromising look at family, loss, and meaning, and seems to be his masterpiece and the logical conclusion of his work since his start with Red House Painters in the early '90s slowcore movement.

You’d be forgiven for not being familiar with Mark Kozelek. While his work with Red House Painters perhaps marked the apex of the “Slowcore” movement in the mid ‘90s, recent reappraisals have focused more so on the scene’s founders, like Galaxie 500, rather than its outgrowths. While other bands of its ilk often focused entirely inward, Red House Painters instead relied on extreme empathy, telling stories of countless figures without being any less introspective. Sun Kil Moon, Mark’s main project since 2003, continues this thread to its seemingly logical conclusion, crafting an unbelievably touching document of family, aging, loss, and how we struggle to attribute meaning to any of it.

While a descriptor like that may immediately have you imagining how sappy this record probably is, particularly with songs titled “I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”, Mark’s recent approach to songwriting forces his audience to directly approach his stories as if they were cinematic. By stripping his lyrics of almost all poetry and making very casual usage of meter and even melody, Mark present the circumstances of every tale in such a way that the only way to misunderstand what he means is to be unable to comprehend its importance.

And this record is his masterpiece. Throughout, Mark addresses his uncles and second-cousins who died tragically and far too young, people apathetic to tragedies in foreign countries, mercy-killers, his love for his flawed father, and his unequal friendship with Ben Gibbard. In standout track “Carissa”, he sings “You don't just raise two kids, and take out your trash and die” with the implication that, yes, you do sometimes, and what does that mean? Death is an overt presence on the record, from the Newtown tragedy, to the serial killer Richard Ramirez, to his fear of it befalling his own parents, and throughout, Mark makes the case that it’s the rare event that forces us to reflect and take stock of what meaning we give to our lives, or in his own words, “find some poetry to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning in this senseless tragedy”. In this way, this is a remarkably simple idea executed incredibly. Every story presented is ostensibly taken from his own life, and the stream-of-consciousness writing fleshes out every character in only the way that you would remember people in your own lives.

Although this whole record seems to be a tribute to the people in Mark’s life specifically, the stark realism of the proceedings necessarily creates parallels to any listener’s circle. Towards the end of ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’, Mark travels to Santa Fe to visit the man who signed him in 1992 after not seeing him for fifteen years. When he claims it was just to “say thank you”, we understand that he’s thanking us for dispersing his poetry, for making sure their “names are known across every sea.”

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