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Review: Honest folk singer confronts mortality

It takes a special kind of talent for a singer-songwriter to deliver not only quality music, but also a poignant story within each song. This storytelling tendency is characteristic of Mark Kozelek, who has released his sixth album under his Sun Kil Moon alias, titled “Benji.” The album is a rare gem in the folk genre, with most artists trying to use lofty metaphors to get their music’s messages across. Instead, Kozelek tells his mostly true stories in a very matter-of-fact way through his lyrics, delivering an honest and impactful listening experience.

This idea is displayed on the first track “Carissa,” which tells how his second cousin “burned to death last night in a freak accident fire” caused by an exploding aerosol can in the trash. Many of the lyrics on “Benji” deal with lives cut short by tragedy, whether it be “Carissa,” Kozelek’s uncle who died in the same way as described in “Truck Driver,” or a friend who “was thrown from his moped when some kind of a big truck back-ended him” in “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.”

Kozelek sings about his characters so vividly and fleshes out their actions to such a degree that listeners feel as if they know them personally. Over the jaunty electric piano melody on “Jim Wise,” Kozelek visits his dad’s friend who “mercy-killed his wife in a hospital at her bedside/ And he put the gun to his head and it jammed and he didn’t die.” He doesn’t just discuss the killing, he humanizes Wise by going as far as telling listeners the albums in his record collection and the food in his kitchen cabinets. All the while, Kozelek’s warm, baritone voice is neither judgmental nor sympathetic toward Wise, but instead leaves it up to the listeners to decide what they think of him.

Drums provided by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley accentuate the mood of the four tracks he appears on, and the saxophone that appears on the closing track underlines the idea of acceptance and new beginnings. The frantic finger-picking of Kozelek’s nylon-stringed classical guitar sets the stage for the stream-of-consciousness style of “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” But as in the works of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, the lyrics take center stage while the music is there to add texture.

To call “Benji” a depressing album seems wrong because of the upbeat “I Love My Dad” and the triumphant closer “Ben’s My Friend.” Rather, it is more melancholic, something of a midlife crisis album. Kozelek, who is now 47, is reflecting on his life and his mortality on every track here, and by the end is able to get up and live on. “Benji” is the rare record that manages to be emotionally devastating and life-affirming at the same time.

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