Here’s how I used to describe Sun Kil Moon a few years ago: the folk project of Mark Kozelek, a writer of tender, peaceful and poignant songs about life and love. His songs are illuminating, well-written and full of storytelling in the classic folk style.
All of that is still true. He’s still a heavyweight writer that can do stunning things with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. But ever since 2012’s Among the Leaves he’s added some blunt honesty to that boilerplate description. His work is no less gorgeous in its instrumentation and writing, he simply sounds like a life-weary man no longer concerned with romanticizing his inner turmoil. In 2003 it was, “Heal her soul, carry her, my angel Ohio.” In 2012, it was “One day you’ll be forty, trust me baby, it ain’t sporty. You’ll be pleased to be reviewed, ‘cause there’s always someone new.”
It’s not that he’s mean now — he’s just writing from impulse, dipping into self-reference and being as frank as he wants to be. If he wants to write a song about needing a song to finish the album, he’ll do it, and you’ll still knocked off your feet.
His latest album, Benji more or less follows through on that movement. Over 11 tracks, Kozelek is as impulsive and frank as he was on Among the Leaves, but the running theme this time around is intense empathy. Empathy for victims of mass shootings, for family members, for a kid at school he beat up. On album opener “Carissa,” he begins singing about a second cousin he barely knew, and when you reach the verse where he learns of her death, you expect the emotion to be apathy and guilt about that apathy. But Kozelek instead shows us a deep sense of loss, pain and fear in a world where death can be pointless and random — unromantic.
As the album progresses, you get the sense that this is who he is: a deeply empathic person with a wide open sensitivity to the big things. It doesn’t weigh on him the way it does on young singer songwriters, whose music is overwhelmed and bursting with agony. On Benji, it just seems to weigh on his mind throughout the day. He just wants to break through and figure it out.
It feels like this is the most revealing and intimate that Kozelek has ever been, partially because he’s writing about things that are plain and true. Titles like “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” and “I Love My Dad” might seem corny initially, but Kozelek is a skilled hand that hits back on anti-sentimentality with emotive music and earnest that can’t be denied. The whole album is full of these honest themes that are completely unconcerned with appearances.
The highlight is “Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes,” where he shows how hard hitting bare folk music can be. It uses little more than an acoustic guitar, a bass guitar, and multiple vocal tracks from Kozelek, but the result is vicious and urgent. The relentless rhythm is joined by a late drum track to build the song’s muscle, while Kozelek’s starts singing over himself in schizophrenic multi-track entropy. It’s as if he opens the flood gates and expunges every anxious thought from his mind at once.
Pre-2012 Sun Kil Moon albums were like landscape paintings: beautiful and easy to look at, but maybe too easy. Now more than ever his albums feel like self-portraits, warts and all. You don’t just look at it anymore, you stare into its eyes and connect with a human face.