Album Review: Sun Kil Moon Tackle Death on ‘Benji’

Woody Allen once commented that he was not afraid of death – it’s just that he doesn’t want to be there when it happens. It’s a witty remark that captures the way many of us deal with death: we laugh at it. We make jokes. Because, let’s face it: there is nothing more certain in this life than the fact that it will all end in death. The obituary section of the local newspaper will one day include your name, with your place of birth, calling hours and an address where the grieving can send flowers.

There are other ways to cope with the big day. Some of us rationalize it — “it’s just the result of natural evolutionary processes.” Some of us try to celebrate it, as if it’s something to be desired. Probably most of us simply try to ignore it. We indulge ourselves in entertainment, smart phones, substances, fantasies.

Mark Kozelek of the band Sun Kil Moon has chosen not to ignore death. On the band’s latest album, “Benji,” released earlier this year to glowing reviews (it’s currently ranked as sixth best album of the year at AOTY, and received a cumulative 85 score at Metacritic), Kozelek confronts the topic of death in great detail and with brutal honesty. It’s impossible to listen to this album and not feel the sting of death. You can explain the end of life however you wish, but Kozelek captures well the visceral response to death that springs from the heart of every man, woman and child.

My introduction to Sun Kil Moon came with “Ghosts of the Great Highway” in 2003. This band is not for everyone — the music is slow, plodding, melancholy, dark, haunting (and be aware that some of the subject matter is definitely not suitable for children). Artists in a similar style might be Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Elliott Smith. This is not happy music. Kozelek sings in a monotone vocal style that lacks range, but it’s raw, sincere and direct. There is a grace and beauty to the music that suggests you are connecting to something true, something that will last. The characters on “Benji” are the kinds of people that populate all of our lives — mothers, fathers, best friends, second cousins. They seem so authentic that we can’t help sharing the grief when Kozelek tells us how they passed from this world.

There’s “Carissa,” a 35-year-old relative who died in a freak accident when an aerosol can blew up in the trash and vanished her in flames. “What were the odds?” There’s the “Truck Driver,” who happens to be Kozelek’s uncle, a “redneck” who, strangely enough, died the same way as Carissa, but even worse, it happened on his birthday. Kozelek muses on his mother, whose love is the one thing the man can’t fathom living without. But the day is coming, Kozelek knows, when “she won’t be here to hear me cry.” In “Prayer for Newtown,” Kozelek reflects on mass killings in Norway, Portland, and of course Newtown, Conn., where 26 people were killed in a school shooting in 2012. “Jim Wise,” an old friend of Kozelek’s father, was on house arrest for mercy killing his wife. He did it out of love, Kozelek sings, but by the end of the year he’ll surely be in Mansfield prison. In “Micheline,” Kozelek sings about his friend Brett who had an aneurysm in the middle of band practice, leaving him on the floor “flipping around like a fish.”

This is just a sampling of the endless detail and local color that pervade this album, and it doesn’t even include, “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same,” which is more than 10 minutes long. “Benji” is so loaded with lyrical detail that Pitchfork has prepared a glossary to the album.

One sentiment that cuts through the whole album is a sense of distress and sorrow. Kozelek wants to find a “deeper meaning” to Carissa’s death: “You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die,” Kozelek sings, as if to protest, “This ain’t right!” Kozelek’s friend Brett liked to play guitar and “never hurt anyone.” Why should he get struck with an aneurysm triggered by a nerve in his hand? What did he do to deserve that? Kozelek adores his mother, but he knows that day is coming when she will die, and when that happens, “I cannot bear all the pain it will bring.”

Does anyone have an answer for the sting of death? Is there any hope that death might not get the last word in this life?

The Bible has a lot to say about death. It says “the wages of sin is death.” Death is so pervasive and relentless because human beings have chosen to ignore God, have refused to thank him, and sometimes deliberately defy him. The “wage” we receive for this rebellion is death. But the Bible also says there is one historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived on this earth about 2,000 years ago, died on a cross, and actually rose from the dead. He is one person for whom death did not get the upper hand. He is one person who gives us the hope that maybe life really is more powerful than death, that the light can triumph over darkness.

This is what Christians mean when they talk about “The Gospel.” As a Christian pastor, I of course believe this. Kozelek admits on the album that he is not a praying man, so I presume he doesn’t believe this. But I would hope that every person who has ever shed a tear in the face of death, and every person who has listened carefully to the pain of Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji,” would at least want this Gospel to be true. I’m not saying that things become true just because we want them to be true. And I’m not trying to add credence to the frequently made claim that Christianity is simply a wish fulfillment. But what does it say about a person who doesn’t even long for the sting of death to be swallowed up in victory?

Death is not just an ordinary part of life. It’s an intruder, an enemy. It’s a curse. I hate it. Mark Kozelek hates it. In the chorus of “Carissa,” my favorite song on this record, Mark sings of his desire to make sure his cousin’s name is known across every sea. In other words, he wants the name of Carissa to carry on, to endure, to last. To not die. Looking to Jesus, I know that desire is not merely a wish fulfillment — it’s a living hope offered to all who want to live.