Saturday, February 22, 2014

album review: 'benji' by sun kil moon

I didn't want to cover this album.

See, I've gone on record a number of times before stating that acts in the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' mold just aren't for me. I find the genre oversaturated with too many acts of limited talent writing meandering songs that go nowhere in the 'Screw Me I'm Sensitive' school of songwriting. Now some of you might find this hard to believe, considering I'm a fan of country music, but most of this comes from country having a stronger attachment to songwriting structure in comparison to many of the would-be singer-songwriters dwelling in the indie folk scene. And sure, I appreciate earnestness and I like good singer-songwriters, but if you're going to go for minimalism in this vein, you only have a few elements to display and you'd better not screw them up.

And I'll admit, I was immediately skeptical when I started hearing the rave reviews for the newest album from Sun Kil Moon titled Benji. Sun Kil Moon is the project of long-time singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, formerly of the Red House Painters and a long-time staple of the indie scene. And initially when the critical buzz started flying about this act, I started going through the discography - and I stopped. Why? Well, the guitar work was very good and the songwriting was interesting and layered, but for the life of me, I couldn't stand Kozelek's voice. It reminded me of Gary Lightbody's voice stripped of all good vocal technique and between the slurring and constantly going flat, as a singer myself it was distracting and it took away from the lyrics. And midway through Tiny Cities, that album of Modest Mouse covers that completely missed the point, I gave up and said, 'Well, look, I'm not a fan, so just ignore the act altogether and avoid pissing off everybody'.

But the positive reviews kept coming in and it began to look like this album was more than just the Pitchfork hype machine, and in my mind I kept thinking about Dream River, the album from singer-songwriter Bill Callahan that I covered last year and ended up being one of my favourites. And it was either trying again with Sun Kil Moon or tackling Cole Swindell (ugh) and delivering yet another bro-country rant, so I gave Sun Kil Moon another chance and picked up Benji, hoping for the best. How did it go?

Well, I understand the critical acclaim this album has gotten, that's for sure - but not because I share it. Indeed, this is an album that at first or even second glance, I should like more than I do. But there's a larger problem when it comes to the songwriting that ultimately sours me on this album from calling it great to only being decent at best. And this is going to take a lot of explanation, so strap in, folks - this'll be a long one.

So let me get the elements that everyone has unanimously praised out of the way. The technical songwriting - the poetry, the meter, the lyrical flow - is great, damn close to perfect if it wasn't for the odd break in rhyme scheme that seems to be done intentionally. The lyrics are overloaded with detail and texture and you can picture every single scene he describes. The instrumentation is organic and supports the songs wonderfully, with phenomenal guitar work and several moments that add a lot of character and texture to these songs. There are elements of the production of which I'm not a fan - the multi-tracked vocals can sometimes make the lyrics hard to make out or unclear, and I found some of the backing choruses to be a little weak - but I get why they were used and it doesn't really hurt the overall presentation. Honestly, if I was looking for a word to describe the instrumentation, it'd be inoffensive - pleasant, melodic, not really concerned with memorable but with supporting the songwriting, which is placed front and center on every track.

And at first glimpse, the attention is well-deserved, half because Kozelek is a great songwriter and half because there's a lot going on in these lyrics, each song a self-contained short story that borders on spoken word poetry primarily focused on the overarching theme of 'death' - or rather 'endings', be they of lives or relationships. Okay, powerful stuff, and I won't deny that there are tracks where he does capture some interesting emotions. 'Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes' is a song that discusses how one feels after old figures of infamy die and the creeping terror of one's own mortality, 'Jim Wise' goes into the guilt a man has after mercy-killing his wife and then failing to kill himself afterwards, living in a world he was 'supposed' to have left, only for the narrator to point out there's still beauty in the world. And the album closer and hands down best track 'Ben's My Friend' operates as an extended metaphor for moving on after a death, symbolized through an end and rebirth of creativity and a mid-life crisis playing out through a day of Kozelek's life.

But I quickly noticed something about this album that started to get on my nerves before actively becoming a problem: all of these deaths and endings are really just the window dressing of the stories, and they become less about immortalizing the people through song and more about how Kozelek deals with these deaths. In other words, he makes it all about himself. And it starts early on: 'Carissa' seems to be a song that Kozelek is writing to commemorate his second cousin who died in an aerosol can explosion, but the song reveals itself to be Kozelek's none too flattering search to say something relevant about a family member he hasn't seen in twenty years and implies her kids might have been responsible. He has two songs about his parents on this album, and both of them ultimately reveal themselves as either expressing how he doesn't know what he'll do when his mom passes away or a possible eulogy for his father that paints him as abusive and makes weak excuses. And while I don't mind that Kozelek doesn't have a filter, I wasn't entirely impressed that he took all these detailed lives (most of which I suspect are true stories) and he makes it all about his reaction shots and his commentary.

Now to be fair, what Kozelek does here is a very human thing to do: when people die or are confronted with their own mortality, they make it all about themselves and their melancholy, and I'm not one to throw Benji under the bus for self-absorption. A lot of artists write in great detail about themselves, even when they're writing about other people - hell, as a writer, I've done that. But here's the problem: Kozelek writes about all of these intricately detailed situations and people in a free-flowing manner that begs for a resolving statement - and when we get it, it's so... trite. The revelations we get are dime-store psychology at best about dealing with death that's not profound or insightful or even all that heart-warming (most of which is undercut by all of the lurid details that he puts on display). Death is one of life's great mysteries and has proven a compelling subject for musicians for centuries... and on Benji, there's no revelation. There's no underlying truth or deeper statement, there's not even an open-ended question! Kozelek is writing about his emotional journey, but there's no growth or maturity or pay-off or dramatic arc. All of these deaths gave him unique stories to tell, but since he always frames himself as an observer or as always in a melancholic mood (perhaps to distance himself from his own emotion), he distances the audience as well and the only real emotion I feel for the deaths is what Kozelek feels and tries to create through the songwriting - and it feels hollow. And I'll admit, part of this is his voice: while it has gotten richer and better with age, I still don't like it very much - I find it flat, frequently monotone, very weak in his upper range, and not especially effective at conveying dramatic emotion.

And you know, if that was his point, that all of these little stories were just to illustrate how humans have a need to disconnect and create emotional distance before being able to move on, or if the album was just 'illustrating all the little things about life that make it special and we should all go out and live', I could be more forgiving of Benji. But I don't quite buy either case, mostly because of two songs on this album, the two I like the least: 'Dogs' and 'Pray For Newtown'. The first song describes in lurid detail Kozelek's sexual maturing process, and it's also a song that shows his heart getting broken over and over and he flips the script, a song that boils down to 'Nobody's right, nobody's wrong' and 'It's a complicated place, this planet we're on'. Besides the dollar-store philosophy, it's a song that shows how that emotional disconnect can still hurt people - just not you in the same way. And then the emotional disconnect gets hammered even further with 'Pray For Newtown', a song about how the world sensationalizes and then moves on after tragedies and it's not until Kozelek gets a letter from a fan telling him to write something for Newtown that he returns to showing empathy. And then he lectures everyone that whenever we feel happy with something in our own lives, we should think about Newtown and feel bad. And not only is it more than a little emotionally exploitative and insulting, it's also brazenly hypocritical because Kozelek spends the entire album avoiding that emotional connection in his own life with his own family. 

But okay, maybe it's the opposite: maybe he's stressing we shouldn't disconnect and we should go out and live life to its fullest because you don't know what you have until it's gone and the all the rest of the slogans cribbed from Hallmark. But here's the problem: in all of the deaths he describes, by making the album about him going through his issues, Kozelek doesn't celebrate the lives of the people who died. He comes closest on 'Truck Driver', but the uncle who died in that song blew himself up with an aerosol can in the fire and Kozelek doesn't spare the details (and ultimately that song's deeper subtext is about Kozelek's evolution as a musician). Instead, I get the feeling I'm supposed to find Kozelek's intimate journey inspiring and emotionally gripping, but since that journey feels aimless and not nearly as profound as he thinks it is, I'm ultimately underwhelmed.

Look, I don't hate this album - there are stretches are beautiful, organic, and extremely well-written - but I'm not moved by this record. I don't find it emotionally gripping, mostly because it feels like I'm watching that season 3 episode of HBO's Girls where after Hannah's publisher dies, she doesn't grieve or show real compassion, but instead thinks only about how it affects her. And while Lena Dunham has self-awareness about how awful this makes her character look, I don't think Mark Kozelek has it to the same degree on this album, and that really kills the emotion for me. That being said, I'm still giving this record a 7/10, because there's some phenomenal craftsmanship to Sun Kil Moon's Benji and I want to hear the conversation about this album continue, so there is a recommendation here. I just don't think the album has as much to say or has the same impact as everyone else thinks it does. 

But then again, that's life for you.

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