The Sun God: Mark Kozelek’s Natural Illusions

Despite this, Jonah Bromwich does not identify with the Sad Boys movement.  It’s hard to say whether every so often the music press just gets it right, or whether there are some albums that are so...
By    February 5, 2014

mark_KozelekDespite this, Jonah Bromwich does not identify with the Sad Boys movement. 

It’s hard to say whether every so often the music press just gets it right, or whether there are some albums that are so staggering that it’s impossible to deny them. I’d like to think that the latter is true of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, which has been properly lionized from Grantland to Pitchfork. Of course, Mark Kozelek’s project is a familiar name, instead of the anonymous sort contained in one of the thousands of emails that gets an automatic delete each day. I do believe that we (the music press) are deleting from our inboxes albums that are of a similar high quality to Benji. But we are certainly not deleting many of them, because not many exist.

The coverage of the album as a whole has been terrific—that the album transforms the banal into art, that Kozelek’s writing is the same kind of subtle realism as was Lou Reed’s, etc. Hyperbole can get exhausting to read, and everyone seems most interested in persuading their readers to just throw the damn thing on already. (A plea which I thoroughly repeat here, though, as I tweeted a couple days ago, I recommend not listening right before bed for fear of copious weeping.)


I do want to highlight one of my favorite songs on the record, one that I think may be slept on given its particular subtleties and nuances. The deaths recounted on Benji range from the personal (Kozelek’s uncle and second cousin, and the inevitable death of his mother) to the anonymous (the victims of Adam Lanza at Sandy Day Elementary School), but one of the most interesting songs exists in a kind of nether region between those two places, and is not about the person who has died, but about her killer.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to be writing about “Jim Wise,” and one of the more effective devices in the song comes in the way that it reveals information. So if you’d like to enjoy the song for its full emotional effects (read: if you like to be sad), refrain from reading this until after a listen.

“Jim Wise mercy-killed his wife in a hospital at her bedside” is not the most important line in the song, but it is the line with the most gravity, the kind which grounds each and every song on Benji in the pain of Real Events, the kind you remember forever, the kind that define a life. The details that we learn about Wise before that line are for the most banal: He’s a fried of Kozelek’s father, he sits around all day, he likes to talk about an old corvette, “his warehouse job and his knee replacement.” But already, within that first line, there is nested intrigue: Wise, we learn, is on house arrest, and must be brought food, from Panera bread of course. (Those who have listened to Benji closely will get an extra chuckle out of the Panera reference, as they know Kozelek’s father was recently in hot water with his girlfriend for flirting with the women who work there.)

The weighty line about Jim Wise mercy-killing his wife fundamentally changes our relationship to the songs subject, but there is a second, equally heavy line, that follows directly after: “then he put the gun to his head, but he failed at suicide.” The emotion that this gives rise to is something like pity, but mingled with horror as it is, it is not pity. It remains, at least to me, ambiguous—it’s something that I’ve considered but have not been able to reconcile with and have ultimately dismissed several times.

That’s true of the majority of the songs included on Benji (and thank god there are some lighter-hearted songs included as well), that they’ve made me think about a lot of things and decide exactly nothing. And it’s difficult to express this point without sounding grandiose, but the flat details that Kozelek writes so well, when delivered in combination with these existential dilemmas, is what makes Benji such an incredible work of art. It is an illusion: sculpted, edited, near-perfect. And yet, that illusion mirrors the experience of living more closely than any album I have heard in a very long time.

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