Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek grapples with life and death on his rawest, most intimate album yet
In a world populated by all too many singer-songwriters, where guitar ballads seem to have exhausted all their possibilities, Mark Kozelek continues to confound and disarm audiences. From his harmonically rich open-tunings, to his spacious, deeply resonant vocals, there's a lush quality to Kozelek's recorded output that's rarely found in such unadorned, acoustically driven music. It's no wonder, then, that his formative recordings with Red House Painters in the '90s made room for a singer-songwriter's approach on the 4AD label, defined by its densely-layered, heavily electronic atmospherics.
Kozelek's subsequent recordings as Sun Kil Moon have gradually pared the layers down further. Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003) traded the dreamy, slowcore tendencies of the Red House Painters' discography for a more physical, earthbound approach, reflected in its overarching theme of boxers throughout history. Its 14-minute opus, "Duk Koo Kim" remains Kozelek's most full-bodied, musically vibrant work to date. April (2008) leaned more heavily on extended compositions, maintaining the luminous, shimmering quality of his previous work, despite its starker instrumentation. With the introduction of his own label, Caldo Verde Records, Kozelek — who'll be performing at Noise Pop March 1 — was given the leeway to pursue other avenues, from full albums of AC/DC and Modest Mouse covers to a collection of live releases that continues to grow with jam band-worthy prolificacy.
The release of Admiral Fell Promises (2010) marked a significant turning point in Kozelek's career, with a nylon-string acoustic guitar providing its sole instrumentation, while 2012's Among the Leaves announced a jarring shift in his lyrical style, finding inspiration in an off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness approach, a focus on the mundane, and a tendency towards blunt honesty: most infamously, deriding his audience as a bunch of "guys in tennis shoes." These past couple records have found Kozelek in a transitional period, grasping for something slightly beyond his reach and, as a result, they weren't as deeply satisfying or rewarding as his best work.
With the release of this year's Benji, however, all is forgiven. Here, the desolate instrumentation and frank lyricism of his recent output is instilled with a greater sense of purpose. It's Kozelek's most autobiographical work to date, as well as his saddest. Death looms over each song. Good people die in freak accidents before their time, while criminals die of old age. Despite his determination to "find some poetry to make some sense of this, and give some deeper meaning," as stated on the record's opening track "Carissa," the banalities found on Among the Leaves continue to show themselves. Panera Bread is mentioned at least twice, while a trip to Berkeley's Greek Theatre can't be recounted without a reference to the back pain-inducing walk up that steep hill.
This thematic balance between tragedy, profundity, and the utterly mundane brings the listener into Kozelek's thought process in the rawest, most unrefined way imaginable. His lyrical style here is jarringly straightforward, approaching character studies with blunt language, and little need for metaphor. Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska is an obvious comparison, in its bleakly worded yet ultimately dignified portrayals of humanity at its messiest and most desperate.