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The Greyhound

Sun Kil Moon’s newest album, “Benji,” a solid effort

What happens when an artist who seems to have been in a perpetual state of lovesickness for over two decades falls out of love? Released under the moniker Sun Kil Moon, Mark Kozelek’sBenji” is one man’s response to human mortality—poignant, heartbreaking and memorable.

Throughout Kozelek’s 22-year-long musical career, his lyrics have gradually become more and more autobiographical. In the 90s with the fuzzy “sadcore” group Red House Painters, perhaps the only references to his personal life were the names of his ex-lovers (Katy and Caroline, to name a few) or some locales from his youth in Ohio, or San Francisco. Starting with 2012’s “Among the Leaves,” however, his lyrics dropped nearly every trace of ambiguity—and on “Benji,” , his songs are almost entirely narrative. His attention to the minutiae of everyday life is remarkable; in “Jim Wise,” he notes records on the shelves of his father’s friend’s house (The Doors and Stevie Nicks), and “the pretty cardinal perched on the empty birdbath” as he looks out the window. In the thundering “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” he notes that he was “eating ramen and drinking green tea” when he saw that James Gandolfini (here referred to as “The Sopranos guy”) had died at the age of 51. He references numerous American chain restaurants (Domino’s Pizza, Red Lobster, Panera Bread) in such a way as to make his work feel more genuine, even if these details may initially come off as dry or irrelevant.

“Benji” is a record that is driven almost entirely by crisis. Death is present in eight of its 11 tracks; Kozelek explores the deaths of loved ones, old friends, celebritie, and the victims of shootings. Notably, the opening track, “Carissa,” is a response to the news that his second cousin died in a fire when an aerosol can exploded in the trash; he expresses his desire “To give her life poetry / To make sure her name is known across every sea.” The death of Carissa is made to seem more confounding when Kozelek reveals that his uncle (her grandfather), also died in an aerosol explosion. In “Pray for Newtown,” he recounts where he was and what he was doing when he first heard of a handful of major shootings and massacres; he urges his listeners to “Take a moment to think about the families that lost so much in Newtown” on occasions such as birthdays, Christmas, and weddings.

This is not to say “Benji” is overly dark, or brooding. A number of these tracks are exceedingly heartfelt and sweet. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” is a touching tribute to Kozelek’s mother and his father gets the same treatment in the humorous, upbeat “I Love My Dad.” “Dogs,” although perhaps a bit out of place on the record, recounts all of Kozelek’s first major sexual experiences. The album’s sweetness is perhaps best exemplified by the penultimate track “Micheline.” Perhaps the most optimistic track on the record, Kozelek describes the death of his friend who had an aneurysm in his brain triggered by his playing guitar. In the wake of this inexplicable death, he then nostalgically recounts memories associated with his grandmother before she passed away, focusing finally not on death, but on life. “Ben’s My Friend” is a perfect closer to the album, a sort of relief after the draining emotion that precedes it.

“Benji” is not without its flaws. Kozelek’s newfound narrative style can sometimes feel forced. His words are frequently difficult to make out—a factor characteristic of his earlier work, but perhaps detrimental to his new approach. His sentiments and songwriting style are becoming increasingly easy to parody, especially given recent events involving his bad temper towards his audience, and his (apparently jesting) mocking of his contemporaries, The War on Drugs. Kozelek is hardly a poet, and his anger and sadness have clearly not subdued since his teen years; yet there’s something about his character that is timelessly endearing.

Released earlier this year, “Benji’s” potency is only increasing more and more as 2014 approaches its end. Kozelek has been consistently releasing solid music since ’92, but it is only now that he finally achieves greatness. Be it his heartfelt apology to a kid he punched in the face in grade school, unprovoked, or his reaction to his grandmother’s death, I find myself thinking about the numerous stories Kozelek recounts over and over again. “Benji,”written by the artist with perhaps the greatest capacity for melancholy of any living singer-songwriter, is a masterful 60-minute-long meditation on death that can only inspire one to live.

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Sun Kil Moon’s newest album, “Benji,” a solid effort