I hadn’t listened to Sun Kil Moon before today, but on a whim (and an incredibly detailed Pitchfork review) I decided to check out the band’s newest release Benji. The great thing about listening to a band you’ve never heard of is that you can’t have any expectations as to what it might sound like. Maybe it’s because of lead singer Mark Kozelek’s baritone vocals, or his ties to Ohio, but I was immediately hooked on Benji.
Let’s start with what Benji isn’t. It’s not a happy album. In fact, plenty of people die throughout the songs. The opening song “Carissa” deals with Kozelek’s second cousin and her death after an aerosol can exploded while she took out the trash (coincidentally the same way her grandfather died, as Kozelek sings, “what are the odds?”). “Pray for Newtown” obviously addresses the Newtown school shooting, while imploring you to cherish your own life. “Jim Wise” tells the story of a family friend that mercy killed his wife only to back out on his own suicide. And I’ll let you guess how the characters in “Micheline” fare. Tough subject matter, but it’s all very honest.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though. Kozelek dedicates songs to both his father and his mother (“I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love) that are both funny and touching at the same time. The album wraps on a lighter note with Kozelek detailing his recent trip to a Postal Service concert in “Ben’s My Friend.” While some may not appreciate the lyrics about the mundane moments of Kozelek’s life, they definitely paint a picture for the listener.
Which is part of the appeal. Sun Kil Moon, and Benji, is folk music at its best. I can’t relate to many of Kozelek’s lyrics, but damn, I get lost in the stories that he’s telling. Whether he’s singing about deaths in the family, his brief turn as a schoolyard bully, or whatever else is going on in his life, you can’t help but get lost in the story telling. Every good artist strives for it, and Sun Kil Moon achieves it.