Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sun Kil Moon - Benji

Mark Kozelek (under his Sun Kil Moon moniker) has released a new album called “Benji.” Along with Joe Henry’s “Invisible Hour” - a very different kind of musical experience - it’s the album I’ve come back to most frequently during the first few months of this year. I dearly love it. It also irritates the hell out of me. In other words, it’s a Mark Kozelek album.

Let it be noted that Kozelek can’t follow a narrative worth a damn. His songs start off in Ohio and end up in New Mexico, and he doesn’t necessarily connect the dots in between. He starts to tell the tale of a young, mentally handicapped girl in Akron but winds up, in his convoluted, inscrutable fashion, reminiscing about his grandmother in L.A.

He’s also inordinately fond of his dick, and he’ll tell you stories about its adventures, and name the names attached to the female genitalia with which the dick has cavorted from coast to coast, and on several other continents. There are aspects about this man that I find thoroughly distasteful.

Did I say that I really like this album? Because I do, very much. And that should tell you something about just how astounding are the positive qualities. Kozelek’s reedy tenor and deft folk fingerpicking recall a flashier Neil Young, and I’ll gladly live with a flashier Neil Young. But it is his songwriting – yes, as convoluted and self-obsessed as it is – that truly sets him apart.

What Kozelek does especially well – better than any other contemporary songwriter, in fact – is plumb the melancholy depths of memory and loss; lost relationships, lost childhood, lost innocence, lost life. He focuses on lost life particularly on this latest album, which is a nearly unremitting chronicle of quick, unexpected death, slow, lingering death, plane rides to funeral services, the funeral services themselves, the post-funeral meals, and the shattered lives of surviving loved ones and relatives. No less than seven of these eleven songs deal directly with death and funerals. Three deal with worrying about death; one’s own, and one’s parents. The eleventh is about a dick. Welcome to the life of Mark Kozelek.

I suppose it’s also worth noting that sometimes life – complex, convoluted, shocking and surprising life – can’t follow a narrative worth a damn either, and perhaps Kozelek simply travels the meandering stream to see where it leads him. Witness what he does on a long, winding 11-minute song called “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” In the song, Kozelek the teenager goes to a mall in Ohio, watches the Led Zeppelin film named in the title, and is caught up in the wonder of the music. That, in turn, calls to mind the memory of friends and classmates who have died tragically young, and the melancholy that has followed him all his life. Those memories then conjure the memory of the death of his grandmother. That news inexplicably caused him to laugh, and he is still haunted by the incongruity of that response. That incongruity triggers yet another one; the memory of being a non-aggressive kid who was baited into a senseless fight on an elementary school playground; of feeling remorse, of wanting to apologize to that poor, unfortunate, beaten kid with the broken glasses, wherever he might be. And that memory in turn causes him to return to the present day, to recognize the storehouse of melancholic memories that has contributed greatly to his musical career, and to look forward to a visit with the man who first signed him to a recording contract, to shake his hand, to simply thank him for the assistance he has rendered. It’s an utterly melancholy song suffused with regret and sweetness.

I would venture to say that there is not – could not possibly be – another song like that one. On one level it is convoluted, meandering, nonsensical, full of non-sequiturs. But this is the way memory works, is it not? And Kozelek has simply captured the neural jumps that take place, often more or less instantaneously, and translated them to a long folk song. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. And he does it over and over again on “Benji,” just as he has done it over and over again throughout a career that now stretches back more than two decades. He’s Marcel Proust with an acoustic guitar. He is unstuck in time, awash in memory and loss, and he is pulling at the disparate strands to weave something lovely.

He’s maddening, and he’s maddeningly gifted. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this album. But I would certainly recommend it.

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