For over 20 years now Mark Kozelek has been steadily churning out his idiosyncratic brand of melancholic songcraft. Initially an extension of the band Red House Painters, the last few years have seen Sun Kil Moon settle in as the primary vehicle for the singer-guitarist as a solo artist. If you haven’t been moved by his past work, it’s unlikely that Benji will be the album that sways you. If, however, you are of the opinion that his deceptively simple songs sung in a plaintive and direct style are among the best in contemporary music, then Benji won’t disappoint. Middle age suits Kozelek well, in fact, as he’s grown into his personality as a lyricist. A bit jaded, but sounding as contented as we’ve ever heard him.
Lyrically, Benji draws on the familiar themes of loss and love, but with a more direct delivery than on recent Sun Kill Moon efforts. Occasionally meandering statements of memories gradually circle back to the initial theme. Such digressions serve to underscore the emotional weight of each track, often embracing the irrational connections rather than running from them. He sings mostly of his childhood in Ohio, making thematic links to current event. He remembers the death of a young cousin, a friend’s fatal moped accident, and regretfully sucker punching a classmate in the schoolyard, as well as the death of serial killer Richard Ramirez, Ronald Reagan, and the shooting in Newtown. His early memories of a Led Zeppelin concert film seems to tell us something about his chosen path as a musician, and yet it is a film about a small dog that serves as the album’s title.
Candid expressions of gratitude are given as much weight as Kozelek’s decades-old guilt, but even the most joyous songs are streaked by an undercurrent of melancholia. This is certainly not a new development; to the contrary, it is probably the defining characteristic of Kozelek’s voice. Melancholy pervades the entire album, but the tragic songs are balanced by the surprisingly tender ones. For every tale of a friend taken too soon we have a song like “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love.” Kozelek tells us “My Mother is seventy-five/One day she won’t be here to hear me cry,” but that knowledge of impending loss makes his expression of love all the more poignant.
On “Dogs” the vocals are a bit strained, wavering and distant and reminiscent of Neil Young, as he sings of a string of amorous encounters as a teen. The first song with drums, a simple but insistent beat propels the odd tale forward, courtesy of Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley. Doubled vocals, from Will Oldham aka Bonny “Prince” Billy, provides a dreamlike veneer, a contrast to his later admission on “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” that as an older man “When I fuck too much I feel like I’m gonna have a heart attack.”
The arrangements are mostly sparse, his selection of gifted collaborators offering restrained support only when absolutely necessary. Kozelek’s quiet vocals often seem to be in a race with his arpeggio guitar chords, only grounded by Shelley’s drums on three of the eleven songs. Benji relies primarily on guitar and voice, but subtle embellishments in the production creep in, such as out of phase backing vocals giving some tunes an almost psychedelic feel, in the original meaning of the term. In addition to Oldham, Kozelek gets a hand from Jen Wood and Keta Bill, who add some needed depth with additional backing vocals. Keys lighting the mood on several tracks, played by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone’s Owen Ashworth.
The closing song “Ben’s my Friend” is the most dense musically, featuring drums, backing vocals, and even a saxophone to augment the insecurities of middle age, including attending a show of a more famous friend. (The Ben in question is Ben Gibbard, of Death Cab and the Postal Service.) Another highlight is “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” a plodding song with a slightly aggressive edge, the one moment in the album where Kozelek’s contentment wears thin and a barely perceptible anger at the injustice of life creeps through.
The centrepiece of Benji is the sprawling “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same,” a highlight both musically and lyrically. The nylon-stringed guitar circles around much the same as the lyrical content. At almost ten minutes in length, Kozelek has ample time to reflect on his past, from the aforementioned sucker punch to the death of his grandmother, to visiting the label boss who first signed him in Sante Fe, and of course on his preference of Led Zeppelin songs. The connections between these events, separated by time and space, serve as a meta-commentary on Kozelek as a man and as an artist. He plainly states, “from my earliest memories I was a very melancholic kid/ When anything close to me at all in the world died/ To my heart, forever, it would be tied,” a line which encapsulates what makes Kozelek an artist worth returning to.