And what’s todays cheery, pre-review subject then? Oh gosh I love the little trying to be funny bits they do at the start before the music starts…well today gentle readers we’re talking death!
Death in music to be precise. From the earliest days of art death has stalked creativity, as long as there’s been pictures and sounds, there’s been pictures and sounds about death. Along with love and sex it’s probably the most commonly depicted event, and it makes sense. As the old adage goes there’s only two certainties in life death and taxes. Songs about taxes are quite rare it has to be said, though not being able to pay them is pretty common for musicians!
Some people have almost made a career out of their ability to spin a yarn about spinning out. Some people are just masters, take Eels. Whether it’s reminiscing on his own mortality (Things The Grandchildren Should Be Knowing) or the death of far too many loved ones (pretty much all of Electroshock Blues is about losing friends and family) few people have written on the subject more, but then few people have suffered as much loss (as detailed in his brilliantly sad autobiography)
What always lift a song above mere morbidity and sorrow though is that all songs about death are intrinsically also songs about life, when a musician recounts a tale of a loved one, it’s the life and energy of the person that gives the song itself it’s life. When people say how do you listen to that sad music I always wonder how other people don’t.
Ultimately as Blue Oyster Cult said, don’t fear the reaper!
SUN KIL MOON – BENJI
Mark Kozelek must be one of the worlds most prolific musicians. His latest album Benji (back once again under the moniker Sun Kil Moon, which is appropriately the name of a Korean Lightweight Boxer) follows hot in the footsteps of three studio albums and three live albums released in 2013. His work with Jimmy LaValle of The Album Leaf produced the mesmerising Perils From The Sea one of our favourite records of last year, coming in third in our yearly run down and the record he released with Desert Shore narrowly missed out on the top twenty. He also found time to pop over and play a brilliantly odd set at Union Chapel where in between berating the crowd for asking him to turn the vocals up, he found time for a couple of Lou Reed covers and a set which featured an awful lot of material from a forthcoming record called Benji (he became almost apologetic for how many tracks he played off it)
Now we sit here in 2014 and the fruits of that live set are starting to come to life! Benji is technically the first Sun Kil Moon record since 2012’s two disc epic Among The Leaves. An album that was full of incredible song titles such as “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man” and “Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome at all Times” it also included not one but two songs about how much he hates the UK, possibly a touch tongue in cheek, but certainly not entirely. It was long…very long! A touch meandering, and largely it recalled tales from the road, which as many a musician has found throughout musical history are tough to get your audience to engage with. Kozelek is a fascinating lyricist, not many people write such literal lyrics, there’s not much wrapped up in metaphor or left to the imagination with Mark. He also tends to fall back on his certain go to topics, boxing, touring and yes death all appear frequently throughout his career. In that sense Benji is no exception, indeed it is largely an album about death and family.
What’s fascinating about Mark’s take on death is where he sits in it all. Take the opening track Carissa, about his second cousin, who died when an aerosol can exploded in her rubbish bin (the same way her grandfather did “god damn what were the odds”). Whilst you might imagine this to be a deeply personal tale of the death of a family member, what’s odd is how distant he is. He admits “I left Ohio, and pretty much forgot all about you” and at a funeral “didn’t know which one was you” so what we’re left with is Mark looking into this situation as an almost stranger, his approach is indeed much like that of a detective, “I’ve got questions that I’d like to get answered” he notes. Whilst this is a tragic tale, as listeners we’re left much like someone reading an obituary, piecing together her life from what little the author himself knew about the person in question. It’s not uncaring though, and certainly he’s not piggy backing a song out of someone’s misery as he puts it himself “she was only my second cousin, but it don’t mean I’m not here for her, or I wasn’t meant to give her life poetry, or make sure her name was known across every sea”. It’s fascinating and beautiful, and made all the better by the presence of a certain Will Oldham on backing vocals!
Indeed throughout the album Kozelek, drifts between the deeply personal and the almost distant. On “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” he talks almost obsessively about his mother, and concludes he wont be able to cope without her. It’s a beautiful song, but also quite a selfish one, more than anything else what makes it so special is the pure humanity of it all. We don’t get Mark the hero who’ll lead the family through the tough times, we get Mark who “when the day comes for you to leave I wont have the courage to sort through your things” the honesty and child-like love on display is arresting and wonderful. Even better is the stunningly touching “I Love My Dad” which is a blues stomper (with a touch of Status Quo about it) about how his dad brought him up right, specifically his ability to live and let live as he puts it “some like the fiddle and some like the trombone” his best anecdote here involves 5 year old Mark crying about being sat next to an albino, and nothing how “my dad sat me down, and said you’ve got to love people, pink, red, black or brown” his dad sounds a fantastic man! Elsewhere he recounts his dad getting him a guitar, and even finds times to reference Wilco guitarist Nels Kline again which as fans of last years Desert Shore record will know is a splendid thing.
Elsewhere we get songs, that are far removed from his own life, there’s a couple about serial killers “Pray For Newton” is his take on high school massacres. It’s a wonderfully deep song, taking pops at news reporters (“CNN was promoting the Batman Killer”), discussing how people react to events at home and abroad (“He was from my home town we talked about it ’til the sun went down” contrasted with “shot a bunch of kids in Norway, I called a few of my friends round here, noone much really cared, I did…because I got a lot of friends there”) what’s perhaps most amazing about Kozelek is his ability to tell a story without casting judgement or offering opinion. We get facts, occurrences and horrific tales yes but we’re left to cast our own stones. It’s thought provoking and brilliant! Less good is the other serial killer number “Richard Ramirez Died Today” which at over 10 minutes long, unsurprisingly lacks any sort of cohesion as it drifts from one topic to another without ever really going anywhere, it’s about the only disappointment on this brilliant record.
“Jim Wise” is possibly the saddest of all, and best demonstrates it’s not death that’s saddest but loss. It’s a tale about him spending the day with his dad and his old friend Jim Wise. Jim’s facing prison for the mercy killing of his wife and his own failed suicide attempt. The plaintive rhodes piano is a perfect accompaniment for this heart breaking tale. It’s enough to make anyone want to sign up in support of Dignitas (which without wanting to get political I highly recommend you do)
Throughout the album, he floats in and out of situations. Recalling characters past and present and it makes for a fascinating album. “Dogs” is a far too graphic tale of his early sexual experiences (or perhaps a complete history of his sexual failures) “Micheline” see’s him reminisce about various characters from his past, and how there sad tales affected him. Like life itself it’s an album full of ups and down, tears and happiness and a whole lot of worrying about stuff you can’t control. The closing track “Ben’s My Friend” is, after all the seriousness, a brilliantly fun way to finish. It’s an upbeat, full band number with a lovely jazzy edge (there’s a wonderfully 80s sax solo), lyrically it’s about going to see his friend Ben Gibbard (he of The Postal Service/Death Cab Fame) perform and how the experience has changed over time, he talks about his worries about ageing, not fitting in and being a bit jealous of Ben’s success. It also includes as many brilliant lines as most people fit on an entire album, take your pick from “my sisters got a new boyfriend, he’s a deer hunter, she’s getting used to the taste of venison”, “caught him after, and said I’ll skip the backstage high-five, but thanks for the nice music and all the exercise”, or my personal favourite for it’s pure unlikeliness “I bought a £350 dollar pair of lamp shades” It still features ruminations on ageing, death and failure but it’s light hearted and a perfect way to sign off the record.
All in all it’s a brilliantly human record, I’d challenge anyone to listen to it and not find something to relate to. At 47 years of age, the days of it all being heartbreak and love songs have passed him by, though in this middle aged period we find Mark better and more frank and honest than ever, in fact I’ll stick my neck out and say it’s his best record yet, at least until the next one…it’ll probably be here in a couple of months!
Benji is out now on Caldo Verde Records