"Beard oil," I thought when I first heard Sun Kil Moon. From a remove, it rang out at a similarly rarefied level of attention, a fussy rough-hewn acoustic guitar churning along at a somber pace of introspection, accompanied by vocals of unrelenting gravitas.
But while " Benji" comes in the husk of hipsterism, there's something much more going on here. I've never heard an album quite like this, an intensely personal musical novella where each song is a chapter that builds on the others. All totaled, they offer an almost uncomfortable intimacy of one man's life at 50, both the wisdom and the warts.
What is amazing is how sure-footed Sun Kil Moon mastermind Mark Kozelek sounds throughout, and how much the songs, with their rhythms and melodies bending to the poetry of the words, coalesce into earworm after a few plays.
The opening song, "Carissa" is about the Kozelek's second cousin, a 35 year old mother of two, who worked on a midnight shift as an RN. He was flying back to a small town for her funeral. She died accidentally from an exploding aerosol can buried in a backyard trash fire.
We learn in a later song, "Truck Driver," Kozelek also had an uncle--Carissa's grandfather--who died the same exact way. "God-damn what were the odds?" he mused.
In the song, Kozelek admitted to not to have known knew Carissa that well, though this doesn't mean he couldn't give her life "some poetry," and to make some sense of--and to try to find a "deeper meaning"--in the "senseless tragedy" of her death.
And that's the bar he sets for the album. Each song is a diary entry of sorts, with an eye for detail and a knack to wring meaning, poetry and melody from the everyday.
At their best, the songs are like melodic monologues, doggerel like those of the pre-Gutenberg era story-telling troubadour. The choruses, for those songs with choruses, are not the usual pop or folk music proclamations, but rather reminders of what the song is about. The sly ones paint detailed portraits while posing as something more casual.
Death figures in most of these numbers--the death of Kozelek's uncle in the dirgeful "Truck Driver," or a friend of his Dad's, "Jim Wise." Jim is on house arrest, awaiting trial for mercy killing his wife in the hospital. It is a loping song with no take-away message but a poignant portrait nonetheless.
One writer from Pitchfork says Kozelek sings as if he is about to die, perhaps from some encroaching disease, and his music of late has been a reflection of his life, a summing up and a goodbye to his family and friends. Whatever the truth of the theory, "Benji" certainly feels like a summation, prompting listeners into making their own reckonings.
The last song, "Ben's My Friend," comes as almost comic relief, a breezy number about a summer back in his current home, in San Francisco's Tenderloin, feeling uninspired. He sings about the crab cakes at Berry's on Union Street, seeing his friend Ben Gibbard’s band, The Postal Service, play, and how he had one last song he has to write for the album.
Like most all of numbers on this album, "Ben's My Friend" doesn't end gracefully, as would a more traditional folk song would tidy things up. Instead it just stops, as suddenly as death stops someone mid-life. Enjoy it now, while you still can, Sun Kil Moon seems to remind us.