Sun Kill Moon’s “Benji”: An Emotional Portrait

Euphemistically speaking, I was in a headspace halfway between awake and dreaming, alone at 3 a.m. last Friday. My frame of vision was askew and circling the drain, so I laid my slightly sweaty head back on my pillow, flipped on some music and looked at my posters. The walls in my room are embarrassingly sparse. For adornment, I have just three posters: one of last semester’s Friday Night Film schedule; one of Paris in the snow; and a print of Klimpt’s Tree of Life. I’d been toying around with the idea of reviewing Sun Kill Moon’s new album, which was playing, and so my mind, free from the fascist confines of concentration, was at leisure to make its wonky connections. The 10-minute elegy “I Watched the Film ‘The Song Remains the Same'” played as I absently studied the scene of the tree, which is peopled by whimsical curlicues of branches, two women, one man and a bird.

Sun Kill Moon is the moniker of Mark Kozelek, folk-rock lifer and boxing enthusiast, who turned 47 last month. His record “Benji” is a magnificent piece of work that, despite its deep and almost overwhelming sadness, has me completely hooked. One could spend their entire life collecting records and never come across an earworm track that includes the line “Jim Wise mercy killed his wife in a hospital at her bedside / and he put the gun to his head and it jammed and he didn’t die / he went to trial all summer long and his eyes welled up when he told us / about how much she loved the backyard garden and the budding rosebush.” “Benji” is chock-full of moments like this, lines of poetry and melody that will knock you over, mist up your eyes and leave you begging for more melancholy. Another example of Kozelek’s glorious, searching sadness is the album opener “Carissa.” The eponymous woman was the songwriter’s second cousin who died in an accidental fire. Its chorus begins, “Carissa was 35, you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” The songs on this record have the uncanny ability to deliver messages like emotional haymakers to the gut. It’s as though Kozelek has so perfectly absorbed these stories into his being that the most exquisitely sad details can seem tossed off. Immediately after the chorus, we’re faced with the following: “Were you doing someone else’s chores for them? Were you just killing time, finding things to do all by your lonesome? Was it even you who mistakenly put flammables in the trash? Was it your kids just being kids? If so, the guilt they will carry around forever.” That seems to be the genius of this record, the confluence of the mundane and the profoundly emotional.

All this is not to say that this is simply a downer album. First, in these aforementioned moments, the tears they wring are those of exhilaration. Second, “Benji” has plenty of heartwarming and funny moments. A particularly bright (though no less wise) track is “I Love My Dad,” which has some of the best lines on the record. He sings, “When I was five I came home from kindergarten crying cause they sat me next to an albino / my dad said son everyone’s different, you gotta love ’em all equally.” Mr. Kozelek then proceeds to drive home this important moral by playing a record by albino rocker Edgar Winter. The scenario is human and resonant and speaks to the kind of mental shift we all have when our adoration of our parents becomes respect for both their strengths and weaknesses. Another uplifting and beautiful song, and perhaps my favorite, is “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love.” The track is autumnal and softly melancholy as Kozelek considers the twilight of his mother’s life, but at the same time he celebrates all she did to shape the man he is. This gets at one of the album’s important truths, that of the primacy of relationships, familial and otherwise, in creating our life’s experience. Lines like these speak to his conviction, “I can live without watching the classical fights / I can live without a lover beside me at night / I can live without what you might call a charmed life / but I can’t live without my mother providing her light.”

This all brings me back to my room, my poster and “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same.” After spacing for most of the song I realized that the faces in Klimpt’s work do not mirror the playfulness of the branches on the tree. One woman stands looking wistfully, perhaps contemptuously, at a man and woman who are in ecstasy in each other’s arms. It took me the longest time to pay any attention to these aspects of the painting because I’d been too taken up by the swirls and patterns of the tree and the single, mysterious bird perched at its center. “Benji” made me think in the same way. You can let your mind luxuriate in the lovely sadness that predominates, but stay vigilant. Great art exists in a continuum and one surge of thought or emotion is deepened by another. This strange, heterogenous mixture is the play of life.