On Down Colourful Hill, Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek was frightened by the prospect of ageing and hauntingly declared that ‘twenty-four keeps pounding at my door’. On Benji, the now forty-seven year old Kozelek harkens back to this same frightening future which has become a comforting past. The sixth album under his Sun Kil Moon moniker Benji is a darkly detailed insight into a human’s psyche and the memories and relationships that haunt it.
Most of the arrangements are stripped down to their bare essentials here; a whispered guitar providing a perfect backdrop for mournful tales. The opener ‘Carissa’ sets the tone, with a song about his cousin accidentally being killed by an aerosol can in a rubbish bag. ‘Carissa was thirty-five/you just don’t take out the trash and die’, his voice bleeds, conveying the fragility of death made all too real when he ponders whether her children put them in there unaware of their dangers. ‘Micheline’ continues the preoccupation with death, exploring the demise of three unrelated people all linked by their unfortunate outcomes and their association with Mark. Death, it seems, is too real.
Kozelek, instead of obscuring his lyrics in poetic abstraction as is usually associated with the singer-songwriter genre, lays them bare and in minute detail for the listener. While this may seem frustrating and even lazy to seasoned fans of the genre, its directness offers a different kind of poetic effect. Though aesthetically different, its directness recalls Weezer’s sophomore commercial disappointment turned cult classic Pinkerton and John Lennon’s first post- Beatles solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Like these records, sometimes the lyrics can be clunky, embarrassingly and seemingly lacking in poetry. For example, ‘Dogs’ treats us with the line ‘she reached down my pants and discovered I was bald’ when detailing his early sexual experiences. Kozelek is brazenly unafraid to relieve the cringe but his willingness to do so makes them all the more potent.
A downside to such a stripped-back approach is that is in danger of becoming monotonous. To solve this issue, Kolzelek occasionally utilizes backing instrumentation to much needed gravity to the album. A wonderfully sentimental piano riff in ‘Micheline’ comes in as Kozelek sings ‘my grandma’ to the heavens, mirroring the innocent sentimentality we associate with our own grandparents. An unlikely usage of a Rhodes piano provides the only instrumentation for ‘Jim Wise’, but works well with the disturbing tale of murder. The closing tack, ‘Ben’s my Friend’ brings dark humour to the album, turning ‘blue crab cakes’, the three most unlikely words in the English language we’d associate with a sing-along, into a mantra for the ages. It contains a saxophone solo that fits in well with our current crop of musicians’ infatuation with the sonic palette of 80’s soft rock, such as Bon Iver and Destroyer.
With any luck, the critical enthusiasm to Benji will help unleash Mark Kozelek and his various projects to a new generation of fans. Its “too much information” approach aligns itself perfectly with our current obsession with documenting our every mundane moment through social networking and Snapchat. Sadly, our boring everyday thoughts are nowhere near as profound as Mark Kozelek’s.By Antonio Pinheiro