Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Gut Feeling: Sun Kil Moon - Benji

Sun Kil Moon – Benji
Caldo Verde, 2014
When my daughter was born, I got a month off work. It was great, and more exhausting than work, and for thirty days I worked the night shift while my poor, bedraggled wife slept. From 10 PM to 5 AM I’d hold Rosie while she slept because, naturally, the only way we could get her to sleep for a decent amount of time was to put her on my chest. I liked it. I loaded up my phone with lovely, quiet music and downloaded a couple of great games on the iPad and I settled in for my shift. During this time I must have listened to Benji forty times. The quietly sung songs played on a delicately finger-picked guitar let the baby sleep and let my mind devour the music. I listened to it incessantly, and I’m just now getting around to writing about it because I’m still processing, still uncovering, and still don’t feel like I’m ready to move on from Benji.  

I’ve always been a fan of Mark Kozelek’s output, but a casual one. I heard Red House Painters’ Songs for a Blue Guitar in college and very much enjoyed its loveliness. Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway was in the background in my later college years and his album of Modest Mouse covers—Tiny Cities—got some play as well. I enjoyed his collaborations with Jimmy LaValle and Desertshore last year, and I think it was those albums that put Kozelek back on my radar and set me up to get totally lost in Benji, which, I should add, is probably the saddest album I’ve ever heard. It’s not depressing (although I’m sure that’s arguable), just deeply sad. But also breathtakingly gorgeous and occasionally laugh out loud funny. It’s a masterfully rendered self-portrait that is so emotionally honest it’s almost painful to experience.

The thing that sticks with me most is that Kozelek has had not one, but two relatives die via exploding aerosol cans in garbage fires. I can’t get over the weirdness of that, and I don’t think Kozelek can either, considering both his deceased cousin and uncle get songs in this album (“Carissa” and “Truck Driver,” respectively). “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” appears to be tender and sweet upfront until you realize it’s a meditation on not knowing how he’s going to cope when his mother inevitably passes away. “Pray for Newtown” plays like a response to a letter mentioned in the song where a fan asks him to pray for the victims in the tragedy that was Newtown and the song is an exercise in attempting to cope with the most horrific tragedy in modern American history. It just goes on like this, and it’s so incredibly comforting to hear someone bearing everything. All there, right out there for you to share and while I’ve never had a loved one die in a fire caused by an exploding aerosol can, I can relate to all of the underlying fears and anxieties.
 Mercifully, Kozelek closes the album with a bit of lightness. “Ben’s My Friend” is a chronicle of attending a Postal Service reunion show. It’s a mundane account of the day and I feel like it’s there to let you know that life goes on. Despite all of the heartbreak of the album’s previous ten songs, you still gotta get up every day, run errands, and try to enjoy your life. The lyrics crack me up every time. Stuff like “Bought a 350 dollar pair of lampshades/ And we at eat Perry’s and I ordered crab cakes” and the refrain of “Sports bar shit” that serves as the second chorus is like a sigh of relief. Sometimes I feel like the only person in my life that really appreciates darkness, so these sad records tend to be very personal experiences. It’s like the record became a part of me and now I carry it around with me. I like that. I think great albums do that to you. You transform a little. You’re a little something more than you were before you heard it. You see things a little differently, things are a little heavier or lighter or fuller. Benji is one of those albums that reminded me why I choose to love music, and I am eternally thankful for its existence.


"Ben's My Friend"

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