Album Review: Folk/Americana – Sun Kil Moon ‘Benji’

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Sun Kil Moon Benji

Rating: 4.6/5

Sun Kil Moon’s sixth studio album, Benji, takes its name after the 1974 film about a beloved stray dog in a small Texas burg. With such a long lost, small town tale as its heritage, Benji marks Sun Kil Moon’s most overall appealing and complete album. Mark Kozelek weaves a tale of America that pulls no punches even when it falters from that ol’ south paw curse (and let’s just not discuss that Rocky worthy saxophone on “Ben’s My Friend”). This is your Americana, filled with all the heartbreak, banality, whim,and continual news feed tragedy that we endure day to day.

Benji takes on a filmic quality not seen in Sun Kil’s previous albums. At the beginning, we get the staples of an indie hit – deceased family members, phantom fathers, and ambivalent motives. But before it becomes a Garden State regurgitation, “Dogs” and “Pray for Newtown” offer an absolutely devastating image of a world on quiet fire. By the time you arrive at the cathartic twangs and light brushes of “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” you realize the news will never be the same. The frantic barely contained deluge of soiled reality is perhaps the best example of why I no longer watch horror films – they aren’t scary like this. In many ways Benji takes all of the best from Admiral Fell Promises and the Modest Mouse cover album Tiny Cities and smashes them into his most impressive showcase to date.

Don’t get me wrong, Benji has its failings. The penultimate track “Micheline” is a perfect illustration of what frustrates Sun Kil Moon fans, fawning over hazy dream sequences and Hold Steady parties Mr. Kozelek was perhaps never invited to. The opening track “Carissa” should be half as long as it is, and the same goes for “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” as they both feel too tightly contested between his bard-hop antics and his Elysian dreamscapes, the latter culminating in a solid five minute wait for release that doesn’t seem quite worth it.

But what makes Benji an exciting listen, especially for those who never got in Kozelek’s corner, is the new found level of production quality and powerful drum performances that his earlier albums lacked. His doubled choruses and roomy reverb feels necessary when it happens. The drums don’t resemble compulsory service hours as they did on April, and Jen Wood’s brief contributions are lovely and light.

I probably should have said this earlier, but I’ve been a confused Sun Kil Moon fan since Tiny Cities. I knew I liked what was going on, but couldn’t justify my endorsement to other people with resorting to vague metaphors and that “one scene” on Sons of Anarchy. Benji breaks the curse, showing the best and (briefly) the worst that Sun Kil Moon has to offer. Vulnerable, pithy, familiar, and committed, Benji leaves you wanting more without wondering why.

 

-Matthew Kay

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