If you aren’t familiar with Sun Kil Moon (aka Mark Kozelek), here’s the rundown:
1990s – Kozelek is in a band called Red House Painters that releases some, slow, atmospheric albums about Kozolek being sad and disillusioned. They’re all pretty good.
2003 – Solo under the name Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek releases Ghosts of the Great Highway, which is a fucking amazing album.
2000s – Idk, output probably mediocre.
2014 – Sun Kil Moon puts out new LP, Benji, composed of long, drawn out acoustic songs that feature Kozelek speak-singing incredibly personal, diary-entry, prose-style songs about people he’s known who have died in Ohio, his family, his upbringing, his mid-life crisis, etc. It gets rave reviews.
So then this two hour behemoth drops and its basically the 2010s Kozelek style (speak-singing, stream of consciousness, long songs) to the max. The average length here is like eight and a half minutes. They include incredible minutia and trivialities from Kozelek’s life ranging from buying fruit from a roadside stand, speaking to a Syrian shopkeeper about ISIS, staying in the hotel where Elisa Lam (the girl from that unsettling elevator footage who was found in the hotel’s water tower) died, trying to buy shoes in Portugal and corresponding with a Sarah Lawrence College concert organizer.
For many, this album will be insufferable. The instrumentals are very minimalist and repetitive, typically consisting of a bass, drums and acoustic guitar just chugging along the same phrase or 2 chord progression for 10 minutes, often with a “bridge” or alternate refrain thrown in every few minutes or so. The Kozelek’s mind-numbing details about his life, and the narcissism required for someone to put two hours of that to tape, can be off-putting. The record requires 2 hours to listen to in full, and its often not remotely catchy.
Still, like some, I find this album fascinating. While Benji was just melodic and poetic enough to be universally adored and labeled as ‘groundbreaking’ or something, this record was always going to be far more polarizing. I’m just someone who was attracted to the positive pole. I like this album for the little details, the humor, the Bay Area and NorCal imagery (there’s a whole song about driving down highway 80 from SF to Sacramento, which I do multiple times a week), and the observations that break through into insightful, even profound territory.
When you get an album this full of one person’s day to day life, the themes that emerge are just the idiosyncrasies and personalities of that person, and those can be both interesting and charming to behold. Kozelek is obsessed with murder, serial killers and deaths under mysterious or bizarre circumstances. He acknowledges that this is messed up, but he likes it, and I can relate – I’m sure we all have our Wikipedia guilty pleasures (mine would be… lists of populations of metropolitan statistical areas). Kozelek sings on one song about planning a trip to the hotel where Elisa Lam died (“Window Sash Weights”), then in another song (“Stranger Than Paradise”) he actually goes there and talks about his own private investigation. And then later, he lies in bed and feels guilty for doubting the girl even existed (“She died at 21 years old in 2013 / the height of the internet age / Yet only 2 known photos”), thinking about her grieving parents. On the aforementioned “The Highway Song”, he fabricates a hilarious murder story about an Eric Clapton impersonator who was killed by someone who’s middle school heartbreak loved “Wonderful Tonight“.
Kozelek has strong feelings about the current political climate. The ‘fuck Trump’ sentiments are obviously expected but are dull and don’t really interest me, but his long passages about how he’s disgusted by the North Carolina transgender bathroom legislation (“Hicks and hillbillies, unite and get along / Rednecks, bury your axe with transgenders and be strong”) is politically incorrect enough to be genuine. Ditto for his thoughts on the Orlando massacre (“It’s my opinion that he deserves a blunt object lodged into his temple”) and the concert shooting in Paris (“Or Paris, France about that Eagles of Death Metal / Actually don’t mention that one ’cause for them the dust is still not settled”).
The famous curmudgeon takes plenty of shots at twitter, millennials, social media, the internet age, the death of culture, the ‘me’ generation, etc. etc., that plenty of critics have already focused on, but I’m neither offended nor focused on that aspect of the album. The skit where he plays a journalist talking to a fan (“Oh yeah I know Jim James, Doctor John Misty / Hold up Suf-jan Stevens is texting me”) is actually great. I’m not so sensitive that insulting my generation and people exactly like me makes me dislike Kozelek’s little touches, like how he “watches The Shining every Christmas”, any less. He makes it clear that his hatred is directed in a general direction, but his interaction with a millennial with whom he plans a concert at Sarah Lawrence College is touching and demonstrates some effort on his end to bridge the generation gap, and he even seems to have a great time at the show – “A nice girl named Sophie played piano on a few songs with us because my mic couldn’t reach the piano / She played the four notes on “Richard Ramirez…” and “Carry Me Ohio” really, really, well / That was a lot of fun”.
Some of the melodies are truly pretty as well. Kozelek’s style of using harmonies to echo his sentiments in nice, major chord arrangements are hilarious when they’re paired with phrases like “Guns from the trolls” and “Huge fucking asshole” on the wonderful “I Love Portugal”. The opener “God Bless Ohio” would have actually fit perfectly on Benji, given its content (Kozelek’s love/hate of his home state of Ohio and the tragedies he’s witnessed there) and its sad, downbeat, minor tone, kicking the album off with perhaps its most song-like track.
I don’t really love all these songs (or parts of these songs) – some of the sections aren’t funny, go on too long and are too monotonous to be enjoyable. It certainly could have used just a big of editing to keep it focused on the more interesting passages. But this record is a magnifying glass on one musician’s life and thoughts, in excruciating detail, over the course of a year, and every additional ten minutes of it just adds linearly to the big picture, and that pointillism crafting of an image is the whole point of the album. It’s not a traditional sort of record, where you can throw on nice headphones to enjoy all the production flourishes and read all the lyrics and think about the arc and sequencing and scope and themes and motifs. Rather, you put it on in the background, and listen in and out, catching glimpses and chuckling at some lines here and there, and every time a more complete picture of this man at the age of 50 emerges, which is pretty satisfying. And no one else is doing this, easy as it may seem, so its still incredibly original. I like it.