You have to wonder when Mark Kozelek will give himself a break. If you were to judge the totality of his life by his music, it would make for a pretty bleak story. As the driving creative force behind the Red House Painters and, more recently, Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek, 47, is the definition of a mope rock troubadour. For more than 25 years, he’s been crafting sweetly despondent odes to heartache, letting the light creep in only for the briefest of moments. That’s a long time to wallow in the muck, but Kozelek has always done his best work under the threat of an impending storm. When life gives him lemons, he squeezes them with a vice grip for every last drop of acidic juice.
But in spite of his on-record Debbie Downer persona, Kozelek’s jaded outlook has earned him a lot of faithful admirers. For a guy who struggles so mightily on record to look at the world through anything but the color grey, he’s certainly got the power of cult behind him. There’s been little need for him to stray all that far from his gloomy creative core, so the fact that Benji, the latest offering under the Sun Kil Moon banner, still has a way of dragging its feet and staring at the floor shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all these years, Kozelek still draws from the same sad well of inspiration, one that never runs dry of the weary tunes that have long become his stock and trade. You know the ones: the delicate folk numbers that bruise like peaches and break delicately like eggshells, or the world-weary lyrics that might be better suited for a therapist’s couch than a tattered notebook.
As is the case with much of Kozelek’s best work, less is more on Benji, from the pastoral acoustic rumblings on “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” to the pristine-sounding “Micheline”. But while Sun Kil Moon has operated largely as a Kozelek solo project in recent years, Benji also enlists the services of drums, bass, and background vocals in stretches to keep things from getting too sleepy. “I Love My Dad” is a mid-tempo rocker that finds Kozelek mulling over the many lessons imparted to him by his father. Then there’s “Ben’s My Friend”, a shout-out to Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard that steps gingerly near adult contemporary territory.
If the music has an expectedly bittersweet air to it, lyrically, Kozelek’s wet blanket is positively sopping in misery. “My uncle died in a fire on his birthday,” he speak-sings laconically over some terse fingerpicking on “Truck Driver”, disposing of any sense of metaphor or hyperbole. That’s pretty blunt and pointed, even for someone who’s spent a quarter-decade opening up to the world through song. But in the end, that’s where Benji separates itself from other tough-luck Sun Kil Moon fare. The album dares to take an extra confessional step and shaves a little bit closer to the bone.
Kozelek wears his sorted memories of lost innocence and lost life, “senseless tragedy” both within his own family (“Carissa”) and the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting (“Pray for Newtown”), like slow-healing scars, and his words fall from his voice with an almost tangible weight. But not all of the unfiltered emotion on Benji is clouded in negativity. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” is a warm testimonial to the woman who raised him, proving that Kozelek can be just as heart-on-sleeve when singing about the things that bring him joy as he is when commiserating over life’s darker moments. It’s a record full of feeling from a guy who feels everything.
Much of Benji delivers on the familiar. Still, Kozelek’s transparency never fails to disappoint or miss the mark, and his low delivery and wounded gutter poetry strike an even more personal chord this time around. By keeping things simple and letting it all hang out, the singer manages to add another solid batch of darkly confessional indie folk tracks to his already hefty CV. Making pain sound pretty and poetic is a tough tightrope to walk, but Kozelek once again takes all the right steps.
Essential Tracks: “Carissa”, “Pray for Newtown”, and “I Love My Dad”