One of the more bizarrely-hyped releases of this year so far has to be the umpteenth release from Mark Kozelek (a.k.a. Sun Kil Moon), the adorably titled Benji. Kozelek has been releasing music under various guises for several decades now, originally establishing himself through the dreamy meditations of his group Red House Painters, and whether under his own name or the Sun Kil Moon moniker, Kozelek has continued to weave melancholy stories with his nylon guitar in hand.
Kozelek’s always been more of a cult favorite than anything else, but upon the release of Benji in early February, a number of publications began praising the album as Sun Kil Moon’s finest work (with Pitchfork even going so far as to grade the album a startlingly high 9.2). I’m usually pretty intrigued when I see so much acclaim for an album I’ve never heard of, especially when it’s by an artist whose work has generally lost my interest in recent years, and as such Benji truly was one of the records that defined my Winter of 2014.
But hype is a fickle thing, and now that the snow’s melted, I thought it’d be fair to see if Benji still held up now that we’re a good seven months into the year.
Well, guess what, Benji is a fucking masterpiece. Kozelek’s brutally blunt lyrics are the lynchpin of the whole record, his aching groan covering all manner of topics, from his growing back pains to his friendship with Ben Gibbard to the death of James Gandolfini. The mundane details of day-to-day life are the battleground on which Benji is staked, and Kozelek manages it all with incredible humility and humor, making for an album that reads differently every time you hear it.
Also, every song is arranged so that what might start as just one dude on a guitar slowly grows into a quietly grand hymnal, with gorgeous vocal harmonies and acoustic instrumentation aiding Kozelek’s weary sighs. From the wistful saxophones on “Ben’s My Friend” to the dinky keyboards of “Jim Wise,” each song maintains its own unique character and approaches Kozelek’s fascination with death from a different angle.
All of this adds up to a record that possesses all the qualities of any truly classic album. From beginning to end, there’s only one song that I don’t completely love (“Truck Driver”), but that ultimately speaks more to how diverse the album is from song to song and how much any track could be someone’s favorite. It’s an intensely sincere release that feels full circle in the way that it cuts through the irony and bullshit metaphors found in so much music, instead choosing to commit to one guy with a guitar singing about life and death. It’s beautiful and bizarre that such a stark album would receive so much attention, but at the end of the day, Benji deserves every bit.
Sam Goldner is the music director at CU-Boulder’s Radio 1190. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.