The business of sad music was perfected in the modern context with 4AD. While not new, the label brought stylized melancholy to a post-punk audience and made it cool (again). Sadly, the success of shoegaze and other contemplative musical styles made hip by 4AD grew into a punch line with emo rock by the turn of the century.
On occasion, real sadness and despair would surface above the manufactured irony and sarcasm of modern rock. The two artist I know who’s writing transcends styles and trends to convey real emotion are Mark Eitzel (formally of The American Music Club) and Mark Kozelek.
Kozelek fronted at least two famous bands; Red House Painters (on the 4AD label) and Sun Kil Moon in addition to a long list of solo projects recorded under his own name.
Once Kozelek disbanded the Red House Painters, he continued recording under his name and his other alter ego/side project Sun Kil Moon. Despite the name, it was Mark Kozelek all the time which made his prolific output from 2012 to 2014 so interesting.
After releasing a sobering take on the traditional Christmas album in 2013, Kozelek released what quite possibly was the sadist album I had ever listened to as Kil Sun Moon. Unlike typical material from 4AD, Kozelek never romanticized death and sorrow but on Benji, it was real.
Benji was the sixth Sun Kil Moon release and seventh album in just a two year span! Named after the 1974 film he saw with his grandmother, Benji would be a collection of songs written about Kozelek’s bittersweet life growing up in Ohio. While there are warm fuzzy moments, much of the album is dark if not distributing in its heartfelt honesty – yet beautiful.
The warm and fuzzy moments, however few exist when the songs focus on Kozelek’s youth like “Dogs”. But even that song is tempered with sadness and disappointment. The song “I Love My Dad” is the closest thing to a conventional upbeat song on Benji. It even features backup singers and fancy playful guitar work.
The simple guitar based compositions with drums only heighten the emotional effect of the poignant lyrics. On one song “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” uses an interesting dubbed vocal effect with Kozelek singing two different sets of lyrics that occasionally come into synchronization only to splinter off again. It was a startling effect the first time I heard it through headphones and was one of my favorite moments on the album.
The album’s tone is informed by the deaths of friends like Tim Mooney (Sun Kil Moon/American Music Club), Jason Molina (SongsOhia) and various family members. Beyond being a kind of tribute to people he knew, the album honors regions like his hometown Navarre, Ohio that have been dealt bad cards.
The despair in songs like “Truck Driver” and “Carissa” hints to how cruel life can be, even to the good hard working people that Hollywood likes to romanticize. The death of people around him and the prospect of Kozelek’s own mortality gives the music a kind of urgency. That urgency comes across in a almost childlike primitive way thanks to repeated phrases like in “Blue Crab Cakes” and the heartbreaking “Ben’s My Friend” a song about Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie.
For anyone not familiar with Kozelek’s work, Benji might be too much sorrow to bear, as it’s brutally honest and plays out like an unedited Behind the Music autobiography. That fact alone would normally make this album difficult to recommend to anyone new to Kozelek’s music.
However, the stark beauty of Benji will surely stand the test of time, as it’s simple production and arrangements are the stuff of classic guitar singer/songwriters. Just a word of advice, listen to this album on a bright sunny day.