Benji, the extraordinarily authentic and vividly written new album from Sun Kil Moon, is not for the faint-hearted. It is lyrically calamitous: death everywhere, near and far. It is intimate: explicit and awkward moments of family and self abound. Darkness pervades, pain and misery persist, and the record would be too much to handle if it weren’t so prettily crafted and commanding.
The vehicle for San Francisco vocalist/guitarist/composer Mark Kozelek is an exquisite blend of mastered instruments, candid story lines, and whiffs of Neil Young, Bill Callahan and Richard Buckner. “I’ll go to my grave with my melancholy,” he sings. I think you get my drift here. Benji is enervating for its comfortable, loving occupation of difficult straits and dysfunction. You can’t wait to listen to it again, but really, you need to.
Kozelek is a renowned boxing enthusiast (the band is named after Korean Sung-Kil Moon), yet the sound in Benji is gently giant, accepting, even celebratory of small tenderness and presence. We are brought in the first lines into his life (with, yes, a death, that of his second cousin), and while it is unclear how much of these song scenes are fact and fiction, both are convincing. Kozelek writes persuasively and attractively, wry and frank, as if on a reflective purge. We learn he loves his parents and, even deep in muck, likely loves himself.
To reiterate: This is not party music. It is soft-spoken, attention-demanding foreground folk. The melodies are subtler than the words carrying them. But it is memorably poetic, genuine in its appreciation of small joys and large life lessons, and recommended for great listeners.