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Posted on February 20th, 2014 (9:00 am) by Ben Welton

There used to be a saying that if anyone were to shoot an arrow anywhere in the South, it would inevitably hit either a musician, a poet, or a soldier. Now, there’s a whole lot of mythologizing going on here, but it is certainly true that the South has produced a large portion of American culture, from music to lingo. The Midwest, on the other hand, is often seen as the antithesis of big “C” culture. Although the Baltimore bard H.L. Mencken was prone to characterizing the South as a “Sahara”—a vast desert wasteland where no intelligent life dwelt, even he couldn’t deny New Orleans’ existence. Mencken’s views on the Midwest were no better, while contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis were prone to defining the Midwest by what it lacked: excitement, enthusiasm, and interesting people.

Benji, the latest release from the Ohio-born Sun Kil Moon, is a thoroughly Midwestern product, but that doesn’t make it boring. More Winesburg, Ohio than Pleasantville, Benji is full of hard stories and abrasive pastimes. Never one to shy away from strange obsessions, Sun Kil Moon (which is a pseudonym taken from a South Korean lightweight boxer from the '80s) delves into several netherworlds on Benji, from the daily desperation of white trash living to serial killers, mass murderers, and suicide. Is this record bleak? Absolutely. Is it maudlin? Pretty much. Is it a classic? Well…

There isn’t a single song on Benji that either lacks annoyance or comes across as anything but overwrought in its overt simplicity. Sun Kil Moon doesn’t sing so much as gab, and when he gabs, he sounds like a ship cut loose from its moorings. On songs such as “I Watched The Film The Song Remains the Same” and “Pray For Newtown,” Sun Kil Moon (whose real name is Mark Kozelek, by the by) mumbles on and on about his life and the crimes surrounding it. Each song on Benji feels like a diary entry—not a literary one written for posterity, mind you; just a directionless bunch of words that all play ring around sadness. There’s no Samuel Pepys here; Kozelek is more like an acoustic Bukowski without the wit, the drinking habit, or the occasional dip into allusion or symbolic language.

Keeping all of this in mind, it’s still next to impossible to loathe Benji. Sun Kil Moon is a critical darling, and already Benji has won wide acclaim. The reason behind this probably has to do with the fact that this record captures something real, or at least it paints an entirely believable portrait. Kozelek’s simplistic narrative style makes him sound less like a songwriter and more like a regular Joe keeping tabs on the world around him. On top of that, Kozelek’s tales of Midwestern rust and Ohio decay has the type of potency that only comes from experience. Benji was lived before it was written.

Musically speaking, Benji is the very definition of minimalism. It’s mostly one man and one guitar. There is of course the plodding bass on “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” and there is also the chorus on “I Love My Dad,” but beyond these moments, Benji feels intimate because it has trimmed away all the unnecessary fat. This leanness makes the hungry heart of Benji all the more powerful, despite Kozelek’s best efforts to sound like a drooling idiot.

Benji might just be the weirdest record you’ll hear all year. Despite having not a single song worthy of standing alone, this record works as a holistic piece—a protracted spin through the rustic purgatory of eastern Ohio. Maybe Benji will fall flat for those who either don’t know or don’t care about the trials and tribulations of the small town experience, and even more might feel disinterested in the record’s exploration of the lower middle- and working-class white mindset. If it’s any consolation, Sun Kil Moon probably welcomes such criticisms, for they play into the worldview that he creates in his music. Benji, as the best example of this worldview, might just be Sun Kil Moon’s purest record to date.

Track List:

  1. Carissa
  2. I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love
  3. Truck Driver
  4. Dogs
  5. Pray For Newtown
  6. Jim Wise
  7. I Love My Dad
  8. I Watched The Film The Song Remains the Same
  9. Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes
  10. Micheline
  11. Ben's My Friend
Sun Kil Moon's "Benji"
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

69 / 100
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