When someone’s very personal vision is on display for all to consume, they’re taking a huge risk putting themselves “out there,” since the reaction to it can range anywhere from hugely positive to incredibly negative. Yet there’s also something wholly refreshing about it too, because even if it sucks at least nobody can accuse the artist of compromising or playing it safe. That’s probably why the best books, films and albums also operate on the fringes of popular culture, because people actively crave the most positive and idealistic things, and anything that doesn’t conform or forces you to relate to it in more than a superficial way fails to provide the necessary escapism from their not-so-great lives. Which makes a great case for why there’s likely to be a heavy division between those who love and those who hate Sun Kil Moon’s sixth record Benji. Then again, most of those who won’t like the album are probably not even aware enough about music to even know this exists in the first place. It’s what’s known as a specialty record, with a sharp emphasis on “special.” Rest assured that no matter how you react to it, you’re unlikely to forget this listening experience.
If you examined Benji solely for its instrumental composition and remove Mark Kozelek’s vocals from the equation entirely, there’s a very good chance you’d shrug and think of it as just another folk record. There’s nothing flashy or wholly experimental about the way these songs come together, even though they’re more varied and dense compared to more recent Sun Kil Moon efforts. That’s largely done intentionally, so as not to distract from the lyrics and the way they’re being sung. More specifically, every track isn’t so much a song as it is an intensely personal story pulled directly from Kozelek’s life. He’ll talk about his parents (“I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”), other family members who have died (“Carissa” and “Truck Driver”), serial killers (“Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes”), provide explicit details of his sexual history (“Dogs”), and give his perspective on one of America’s most recent tragedies (“Pray for Newtown”). Is any of it true? Is all of it true? A little research about the names, dates and location details in every song appears to point towards complete honesty, though on occasion a name might be changed to protect the innocent. Every tale is told with such interesting and vivid specificity that you can picture it in your head, while also generalized enough that just about anyone can relate to it. That remarkable balance is what turns this from a good record to a great one.
Given that somebody dies in almost every single song on Benji, you might think that this is a pretty depressing album. How Kozelek avoids falling into that trap is by painting vivid portraits of the people he’s singing about. Their experiences turn out to be just like our own, a grand mixture of triumphs and failures, happy moments and sad ones, and everything in between. Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to make it through this lengthy record in one sitting due to all the emotions it conjures up. That’s just part of what it means to be a living, breathing human being. Kozelek writes about all these people and topics because they’ve changed his life in some way, and creating poetry out of them is his way of returning the favor. One can only hope it will inspire others to do the same.