Mark Kozelek has a bad back, owns a $350 pair of lampshades, gets frustrated trying to park near Berkeley's Greek Theatre, loves Led Zeppelin's acoustic "Bron-Yr-Aur," and let out a laugh when he heard his grandmother had died. It's important that we know this.
It's important that we learn in song the names of the towns where Kozelek's relatives live in Ohio, that we know what he was eating the moment he found out the serial killer Richard Ramirez died of complications from lymphoma in a Marin hospital. We need to hear that Kozelek and his dad brought food from Panera Bread to a friend under house arrest for mercy-killing his wife, that the friend had a '90 Corvette and a long white beard, and that the friend tried to shoot himself but the gun jammed, leaving the friend to face almost-certain prison time for having killed his wife, as Kozelek puts it, "out of love."
All this specificity summons tremendous power. It yanks you into Kozelek's mind, into grappling with, say, the fact that not one but two of Kozelek's relatives were killed by exploding aerosol cans. It makes those deaths, and other deaths — for death is everywhere in the 61 brilliant minutes of Kozelek's new album, Benji — more painful and yet more quotidian. And it makes this latest release under Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon moniker not just one of the most stunning albums of the year so far, not just maybe one of the strongest in the former leader of Red House Painters' long career, but a rare and searing and important work of art. In an era enamored with glamorous illusions, Benji's true, dull, uncool details constitute a forceful rejoinder. They make this 11-song sonic memoir almost anti-pop music.
Oh, there are a few pretty choruses. Kozelek's warm, muscular baritone finds accompaniment not just in his lush sweeps of finger-picked guitar, but occasionally in drums, electric guitars, in other friendly harmonizing voices. Its warmer songs can be downright easygoing, like the acoustic blues of "I Love My Dad." But often the sonic niceness works in the service of devastation, as that distant, crushingly naive electric organ does on "Jim Wise," about the husband who mercy-killed his wife. Kozelek's cascading guitar work on the album's 10-minute centerpiece, "I Watched The Film The Song Remains the Same" — about the lifelong persistence of the singer's melancholy — seems to isolate him with his memories and regrets, a beautiful curtain that traps the sadness around him. But everywhere, the music stretches to fit Kozelek's lyrics, not the other way around. The lines that stick in your head are not refrains but complete sentences: "When I was 5 I came home from kindergarten crying 'cause they sat me next to an albino," is among the most memorable.
One of Benji's greatest tricks is that its melancholy never seems forced or affected. Often the gloom comes leavened with flashes of humor, and even the most painful memories and penetrating introspection arise out of innocent events included in the songs: waking up to many phone calls from a single area code, going to a concert, watching a movie, having lunch with his girlfriend on Union Street. No detail is too mundane to warrant inclusion. The album, which was recorded at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco last year, tells of the 12-hour days behind the microphone during "that Tenderloin summer" of its making. It mentions the death of Ramirez, which happened on June 7, 2013, and the Postal Service reunion concerts at the Greek Theatre, which took place July 26 and 27. That final song, "Ben's My Friend," about the Postal Service's Ben Gibbard, even accounts for its own genesis, like the snake that eats its own tail, only in reverse: "Woke up this morning and it occurred, I needed one more track to finish up the record/I was feeling out of fuel and uninspired, laid in my bed too long, a little down, a little tired." Later we learn that Kozelek had been having a "meltdown" — it isn't clear for how long — that ended a few days after the concert, and that's why he's really telling us all this. His listlessness was a symptom of a malady he later diagnoses as a "middle-age thing" — the same fear of death, presumably, that haunts the 46-year-old throughout.
You may ask why it's worth tucking into an hour of downbeat, if beautiful, music about the random finality of life (and about familial love, and the singer's sexual history), but the songs on Benji constitute their own reward. Here you inhabit a world in which the thoughtless, habitual trudging through a quiet summer is pierced every so often with revelations and tragedies, beginnings and ends — a world very much like our own. So much pop music is about pleasing delusions and eliding reality. Benji is not. Kozelek summons an inspiring and utterly fearless honesty, admitting he didn't know well the second cousin who died in the garbage fire, that his knees hurt while standing at the concert, that "When I fuck too much, I feel like I'm gonna have a heart attack." Those details are his and his alone. But it's through them that we most clearly see ourselves.
Four More Recommended (and Not-Sold-Out) Noise Pop Shows
Papercuts, Vetiver, and the Donkeys on Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the Chapel
Shabazz Palaces, Cities Aviv, and Extra Classic on Thursday, Feb. 27, at Slim's.
No Age, Hindu Pirates, and Creative Adult on Friday, Feb. 28, at Bottom of the Hill
Throwing Muses and Mark Eitzel on Friday, Feb. 28, at the Jewish Community Center