Sun Kil Moon’s ‘Benji’ expertly handles heavy topics

“Benji,” the latest release from Sun Kil Moon, isn’t exactly revolutionary from a musical perspective. Yet, because of frontman Mark Kozelek’s superb songwriting abilities, the album allows listeners to peek into a different universe, revealing the intimate details of Kozelek’s personal life without feeling overly sentimental or melodramatic. “Benji,” is a portrait of an artist at his rawest, as Kozelek sings of his fears, hopes, loves, lusts and family. And he does this all with minimal aplomb, ensuring that he always sounds real and sincere.

Mark Kozelek’s influences stem from various sources, but the two closest to his heart seem to be classic rock and folk music. These influences are evident on “Benji” – many songs on the record feature little more than Kozelek’s grizzled voice and an acoustic guitar. In the instances when Kozelek does decide to pick up the pace and incorporate more instruments, the album resembles a stripped-down, modern reinvention of classic rock music Kozelek reverentially references throughout his work.

Allusions to bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Doors are littered throughout “Benji,” and, often, they come with a personal history. “Dogs” is not only named after the 17-minute masterpiece from Pink Floyd’s “Animals” (1977); the song also reveals Kozelek’s own personal connection with the album. He sings, “Oh Patricia, she was my first love / she sat eight rows behind me and I couldn’t breathe / I gave her Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ when we were in sixth grade / and it was on her turntable when I met her on Sunday.” On “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same,” Kozelek recounts the very first time he saw Led Zeppelin’s concert film, “The Song Remains the Same” (1976), while simultaneously telling listeners how was impacted by the band’s music.

This track also emphasizes one of the major themes of the album: death. Kozelek croons, “I don’t know what happened or what anyone did / from my earliest memories I was a very melancholic kid / when anything close to me at all in the world died / to my heart, forever, it would be tied.” Most of the tracks on “Benji” mention death at some point or another, and it almost feels as if Kozelek is unable to escape his fear of death. In fact, “Carissa,” the album’s opener, is about Kozelek’s second cousin, who died in a freak accident involving the explosion of an aerosol can. Incidentally, this was the same way Kozelek’s uncle – Carissa’s grandfather – died, and Kozelek memorializes him and his unfortunate death in “Truck Driver.”

Not all of the deaths that occur in “Benji” revolve around Kozelek’s immediate family – some of the songs also focus on serial killers and mass murderers. Both “Pray for Newtown” and “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” deal extensively with these subjects. On these tracks, Kozelek vividly remembers where he was and what he was doing when he first heard the news of various mass murders. He recalls how frightened he felt, and specifically how, after the Newtown killings, a fan wrote him a letter asking him to pray for those lost in the tragedy.

Not all of “Benji” is bleak and depressing, though. The album contains plenty of stories about a young Kozelek growing up and learning about life. Here, happier topics, such as love and dreams of the future, contrast perfectly with the themes of death and loss of innocence that are so prevalent in other songs. “Benji” does not redefine music as we know it, but it does showcase Kozelek’s impressive songwriting talents that have enabled Sun Kil Moon to still sound fresh. By reaching into the past, but refusing to be defined by it, “Benji” carves its own direction forward – creating an alternative to current soft-spoken indie pop/rock by groups like Mumford and Sons, as well as to older folk rock artists such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Indeed, “Benji” is an album that commands listeners’ attention.