Sunday, April 27, 2014

Benji: Songs About the Past

Aside from being an early contender for Album of 2014, Sun Kil Moon's Benji is also a great testament to the power of music as tombstone. There's an awful lot of death strewn throughout these 11 songs, but Mark Kozelek's intention isn't simply to depress us (although goodness knows he manages that anyway) - the songs are written to give meaning to those lost lives, to ensure that the gone aren't forgotten.

Everyone writes songs about the past, but few are as purposeful as the tracks that make up Benji. Take Carissa, for example; the album's opening track is all about the death of Kozelek's second cousin*, and he straight-up tells the listener that he wants "to give her life poetry" and "to make sure her name is known across every city".

As such, this song serves as a record of Carissa's existence, and ensures that this nurse and mother-of-two from Ohio will be remembered. In a similar vein, Truck Driver chronicles the life and times of Kozelek's uncle (Carissa's grandpa), another relative who died in a fire. The song informs us that he "died a respected man", and another dead relative is given some historical significance - how many "redneck" truckers have been immortalised in a song by miserabilist indie royalty?

Elsewhere on the disc, Kozelek pays tribute to his grandmother, his buddy Brett, and numerous other friends, relatives and acquaintances who passed away at one point or another.

But the dearly departed aren't the only stars of Benji. Over the course of the album, we also hear about Kozelek's mum (I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love), Kozelek's dad ( I Love My Dad), and some of Kozelek's lovers (Dogs, in which the singer names the first girl he kissed, the first girl he had sex with, the first two girls he went down on, and so forth ). Oh, and in the album's most heartbreakingly tragic moment, we learn about Jim Wise, a friend of Kozelek Sr. who is under house arrest after mercy-killing his bedridden wife. He tried to kill himself, too, but the gun jammed, he lived, and now he's almost certainly going to jail. It's an exceptionally depressing little ditty, and as such, it's probably the album's best moment:

It reminds me of that one Casiotone for the Painfully Alone I've heard.

On every level, Benji is an album that expertly taps into music's potency as a permanent record. Every song has a different purpose, but whether he's commemorating a dead relative, documenting his feelings about his parents while they're still alive, or - in the case of Jim Wise - simply setting the record straight about a good man who will probably go down in history as a convicted murderer ("Jim Wise killed his wife out of love for her"), Kozelek is always using his lyrics as a means of setting something in stone.

Some of these songs - particularly the ones towards the end of the album - seem to do little more than list things that happened in the past. Dogs is one that I've already mentioned, but I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same is a more straightforward example. Here are the first few lines of that song:

"I watched the film The Song Remains the Same at the midnight movies when I was a kid, at a Canton, Ohio mall with friends one warm summer weekend."

This eventually leads into a reflection on how the film seems different now that John Bonham is dead, but the main intention of that verse seems to be nothing more than documenting this past event, making it that little bit more real. Just as photographs give us a connection to past events that would otherwise be intangible, so too do these songs serve as concrete evidence of Mark Kozelek's past.

I'll end by noting that Benji is my favourite album of the year so far, and that you should definitely give it a listen if you haven't already. It's like 2014's equivalent of Last of the Country Gentlemen.

*Although, since Kozelek's uncle was Carissa's grandfather, she's actually his first cousin once removed (I think).

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