By: Jason Smith
[NOTE: There is some serious #NSFW stuff that follows. It's all in word-form, but I just want you to be warned.]
“Carissa was 35. You don’t just raise two kids, and take out your trash and die…”
So begins what has to be one of the best intimate, singer-songwriter albums since Iron & Wine penned Our Endless Numbered Days.
Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is a tour de force that might just save this year of crummy music. In fact, this album is surely one of the best of the young decade. It would be arguably the best were it not for the era-defining masterworks of Kanye West (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and Kendrick Lamar (good kid, m.A.A.d. city). In short, this album is damn good and worth your time.
Benji is an album that does not apologize for being an album.
It does not give a shit that it is asking you to think through a series of stories, weaved together like some Abstract tapestry. It does not care that it might take reading the lyrics to pick out all of the little goodies that Mark Kozelek (the songwriter behind the moniker ‘Sun Kil Moon’) has buried away. It also doesn’t give half a damn that it is an album about death — the last thing anyone wants an album to be about, especially in light of how dark Sun Kil Moon can get sometimes.
This album pulls no punches about meaning beyond the veil.
My mother is seventy five
One day she won’t be here to hear me cry
When the day comes for her to let go
I’ll die off like a lemon tree in the snow
When the day comes for her to leave
I won’t have the courage to sort through her things
With my sisters and all our memories
I cannot bear all the pain it will bring
There isn’t much “My mom is going to die, but it will be alright because of heaven or something.” It is only the empty, sheer weight of loss in its purest form.
Now if Kozelek were to just pound us with thoughts about death this album would be a helluva drag without also being, at the same time, a beautiful picture of hope for finding human beauty in the midst of agony. Hence, Benji has to talk about something other than just death. It does this much in the same way we human beings find a way to talk about death: we talk about all the nothing that isn’t the something we’re afraid of. Yet, Benji also captures how when we talk about this “nothing” we are always talking about the “something.” Hence, when Sun Kil Moon writes a song about sex, well…
Oh the complicated mess of sex and love.When you give that first stinger you’re the one who gets stung. And when you lose control and how good it feels to cum. And when you’re panting like a dog getting into someone.
Oh rejection how it hurts so much, when you can’t love the one you’ve been longing to touch. And they’re on to something else and it don’t feel right. And you wonder are they cumming together all night.
The nature of attraction cycles on and on. And nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. Our early life shapes the types to whom we are drawn. It’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on.
Sex is not exempt from thought of the end, but even in this song you’re forced to realize that sex has never been outside of this subject. We’ve always been trying to fight death with fucking. Part of this impulse is that we’re following pleasure to something of a higher order, something that transcends the ‘we’re all gonna die’ aspect of existence. The other part of it is that remnant of very Pagan thought we’ve never quite jettisoned from the modern world — that seemingly religious impulse that drives us to reproduce in order to be immortal. Both are in this album, without comment. Just there, like all of us.
I said above that this album doesn’t give a damn that you have to sift through it. Still, just by doing the minimal amount of sifting (listening to it with half a brain more than one time) you’ll find an obvious connection in the first five tracks — people are always dying from accidents involving Aerosol cans.
Somehow people in the orbit of Benji are more often than not victims of fiery explosions. Carissa dies from an Aerosol can in the trash. Kozelek’s Uncle from “Truck Driver” throws a can of spray paint in the fire and meets an eerily similar end. Funny thing is, you can almost hear Kozelek trying to resist the most human impulse there is: to assume that there is some connection between the two deaths.
Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire
In her yard in Brewster her daughter came home from a party and found her
Same way as my uncle who was her grandfather
An aerosol can blew up in the trash, goddamn what were the odds?
And this is the most fundamental terror of death for human beings. It is not the simple fact that death happens that terrifies us. We all knew these were the rules of the game once we began to play for real. The real terror is that two deaths that seem to be cosmically or supernaturally or transcendentally connected are not actually connected at all.
They are just deaths. They happen. And that’s it.
Nowhere is this message more apparent than on “Jim Wise,” arguably the most gutwrenching song on the entire album. Jim Wise smothered his dying wife in an apparent mercy killing then went to kill himself. The gun jams and he doesn’t die. Hence, Kozelek and his Dad end up visiting Jim on house arrest and awaiting trail for Murder when he should in fact be dead and with his wife (if that’s even a thing for Kozelek).
One of the final stanzas goes like this…
Jim Wise killed his wife out of love for her at her bedside.
And then he put the gun to his head but he failed at suicide.
His trial’s coming up in the fall and he sighed when we stepped out and we left.
And I pointed out the pretty cardinal perched on the empty birdbath.
The bright red cardinal, the empty birdbath.
Spent today with my dad and his friend Jim Wise
I assume you felt the same way I did the first time I read/heard these lyrics.
“WHAT DOES THE CARDINAL MEANNNNNNN????”
Just throwing a random bird image into a song isn’t what makes this track brilliant.
I think Kozelek letting you into his noticing the cardinal is brilliant.
You see, what you don’t hear in this stanza is a plea for meaning. Sun Kil Moon is NOT trying to make the cardinal a god that is watching over us and making everything turn out ok.
But you don’t hear a condemnation of all meaning either.
What you hear is the utter brilliance of this album — it’s ability to name the unstoppable search within the human condition for any meaning whatsoever.
You see, Kozelek may come off as a bit of a humanist or a nihilist or the furthest thing from a ‘religious person’ you can find. But, in reality, Benji is not an album about the nothingness that is human existence.
It’s about the fact that we can’t not keep searching for something to hold on to, even in the face of Carissa raising two kids and taking out her trash and dying, just like that.
Go listen to this album. You’ll be glad you did.