Updated Fri, Jul 18, 2014 2:07 pm
Mark Kozelek (who performs under the moniker Sun Kil Moon) will steer his current tour to Louisville, Ky., this weekend, with a highly anticipated set at this year’s Forecastle Festival.
Formerly the bandleader of the widely acclaimed band Red House Painters, Kozelek and his band mates initially developed the first Sun Kil Moon song set while dealing with a delayed release of their final album.
From that first Sun Kil Moon album (2003's wondrous Ghosts of The Great Highway), the band continued on in a similar fashion until 2010, when Kozelek began venturing off to record as a solo act under the Sun Kil Moon name. It was at that time that Kozelek began channeling his songs through his love of classical guitar.
Now, some four years later, armed with that trademark nylon-stringed guitar and the brilliant new Sun Kil Moon album Benji, Kozelek is winning new fans with one of the most intriguing albums of the year.
Tastemakers such as Pitchfork, Paste Magazine, NME, Spin and many others have declared Benji (taken from the name of the 1974 film about a lovable dog) one of the best albums of 2014.
And even though Kozelek has built a reputation as a fine songsmith with The Red House Painters and beyond, the glowing reception of his newest outing has given him a means by which to reach a wider audience, although that was not the expectation when he released it.
"The response to Benji has been great, and honestly, I never would have predicted it. I thought the record would get a poor response," he explained. "The surprising thing is the amount of young people who seem to like the album. I would never have predicted that. I guess I can thank Pitchfork for that."
Pitchfork, most notably, showered Benji with lavish praise (placing it in the coveted "Best New Music" category) and, as such, offered Kozelek a prime performance spot at their Chicago festival, just before he makes his way to Louisville for his Sunday afternoon Forecastle set.
The larger festival shows are great for exposure, but Kozelek is a little wary of them, noting that "festivals are difficult for everyone because you don't get a sound check, and nylon string guitar doesn't sound great outdoors…but you're just up there for an hour, or less, so you just give your best under the circumstances. I just get up and sing."
Benji was recorded in San Francisco with engineer Nathan Winter and Kozelek self-producing. For the sessions, Kozelek enlisted the help of some notable guests including Will Oldham, Jen Wood of The Postal Service and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. To capture the immediacy of his songs, Kozelek followed a similar blueprint to past releases: Get things down and capture the ideas quickly without wasting time.
"Every time I had a song written, I'd record it immediately, which has been my approach for a while now," he said. "I don't like waiting or dragging things out. It’s the initial instinct that always works out best for me. You don't want to write something as great as "Richard Ramirez" or "I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same" and wait a year to record. That would kill that initial spark, which is what it's all about, in my opinion."
Much of the album serves as a deeply personal and transparent reflection of his life, upbringing and roots in Ohio, referencing intricate details and locales that will feel familiar to anyone who has lived in the state. (On the track "Carissa," he notes "yesterday morning I woke up to so many 330 area codes.")
Many of these tracks find Kozelek journeying through the events and people that shaped his life, with much of the album being cloaked in stories of death and tragedy. On tracks like the aforementioned "Carissa," Kozelek delicately picks through a melodic meditation on the true story of the life and death of a second cousin who tragically died from an explosion in a trash fire. Sadly, Kozelek also shares about his uncle who died in similar circumstances in the track "Truck Driver."
Kozelek notes that while Ohio holds a lot of pain, it has also played an important role in his development as a writer and musician.
"I have a very difficult relationship with the place. I love it in ways, but find it a pretty sad place too; not a lot of uplift," he said. "Every time I'm there, I hear about more people in-and-out of jail, on drugs, collecting welfare, etc., but it’s where I grew up. I wouldn't be the same musician had I grew up anywhere else."
The songs on Benji are practically held together through the fabric of Ohio and his memories and connections back to it. Kozelek notes as much when he sings that he’s "going to go to Ohio, where I feel I belong."
photo: Ottowa Sun
Benji is an album rich in its detail of his hometown, in a broad novelesque way, with the names of the shopping malls, the out-of-the-way small towns, and the neighbors and childhood friends that shaped Kozelek’s life. The songs tie together, referencing similar characters and lyrics in a way that feels at once like non-fiction and poetry.
Elsewhere on the album, Kozelek pays homage to both his mother and his father, sharing his appreciation for and struggles with both of them, while providing a living eulogy to their virtues and imperfections.
In the song "I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love," Kozelek maintains that he could forsake many of the relationships and experiences of his life, but not so with his mother. In gorgeous fashion he admits, "my mother is 75, she’s the closest friend I have in my life. Take her from me, I’ll break down and bawl, and wither away like old leaves in fall."
At the age of 47, it is clear that Kozelek is thinking about death, both for the people he has known personally, as well as those who framed the landscape of his world. With direct and disturbing accuracy, he explores the lives and deaths of the criminals that shaped the news of his life, noting in the track "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes," "these things mark time, and make us pause."
In this song cycle, even the lives and deaths of the most detestable of society are used by Kozelek to explore his journey. The influence of the villainous hits especially hard on the track "Pray For Newtown," where Kozelek reflects on the horror of the elementary school killings and gun violence in America. The impetus for the track, which he mentions in the song, was a fan letter asking him to pray for the residents of Newtown after the tragedy.
"It was the fan letter, and other memories I had," Kozelek reminisced. "I was in New Orleans when there was a shooting in Portland, and I remember watching it on the news, then walking down Royal Street and realizing it wasn't news, at all. My most profound memory in regard to these events is arriving in Seoul, Korea. I had been in Asia for a few weeks and hadn't turned on a TV. It was so peaceful there. I finally had a moment to turn on the TV, and it was news about the movie theatre shooting in Colorado. I realized in that moment that this was becoming business as usual in the USA."
Kozelek wades into his most vulnerable self-confession on the track "Dogs," with his devastating exploration of sexual discovery and a litany of heartaches and romances. He uses a middle school sexual encounter, set to the Pink Floyd album Animals, to lead listeners through a sober journey of his sexual history, reeling in the confusion of lost love and the jealousies and conflictions of physical romance. Kozelek finally points to the obvious at the end of the long and difficult story, "it’s a complicated place, this planet we’re on."
Kozelek’s personal discovery come to fruition on what is arguably the best track on the album: "I Watched the Film The Song Remains The Same." Set to a sparse double-tracked guitar reminiscent of Zeppelin’s own "Bron-Y-Aur," the song bookends Kozelek’s life, through his memories of the Led Zeppelin concert film.
Laced with multiple stories of the people in his life that he’s lost or been helped by (even discussing his road to getting his first album deal), Kozelek reconciles difficult memories to eventually realize that he is destined to carry sorrow, no matter the circumstance. He confesses "…so much has happened to me, but I discovered I cannot shake melancholy. For 46 years now, I cannot break the spell. I’ll carry it through my life and probably carry it to Hell. I’ll go to my grave with my melancholy."
And with that admission, Kozelek comes full circle with the Led Zeppelin concert film. Whereas early in his teens, the movie served as an inspiration, now into middle age it stands to remind him of human mortality and the unchangeable character of his heart.
In thinking about his style of writing, Kozelek notes that he has found inspiration from some ("John Connolly is a friend of mine and he sends me his books, and that is very motivating for me"), but in terms of his ability to craft poignant stories wrought from experience, he has no shortage of material.
"The content of my writing, it just comes from my everyday life. It’s not hard to find things to write about," he explained.
And it is that matter-of-factness that has made this album such a powerful artistic statement, one that has resonated with both old and new fans this year. When he released Benji, Kozelek openly wondered how much tolerance listeners would have for these long diatribes of his life.
"I told my mom and dad I loved them in this album, gave praise to some who passed along the way, thanked Led Zeppelin and my grandmother for the inspiration," he said. "My only fear was that the record would be written off as middle-aged neurotic ramblings."
However, it’s clear that Kozelek’s haunting and hallowed songs have struck deeply with listeners. As one reviewer from NME noted, "if you want truth, you’ve come to the right place." Indeed.