My grandpa died when I was sixteen. I had recently moved to Maine, and he to Walla Walla—the bookends of the Miles family were at the bookends of the nation. Though I had met the man only twice, I knew I should feel sad at his passing. It was the first experience I had with the loss of my own flesh and blood, so in deference to his memory, I collapsed onto the gray carpeting, happy to feel sad. Stupidly, comically, I hooked up my computer to some speakers, pulled up iTunes, and double-clicked on “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, a song that isn’t about death—a song that isn’t really about anything at all. In my head, the death of my grandfather is inextricably connected to 1995 Britpop excess.
Life doesn’t make sense, and I get the feeling that neither does death. We might not be able to have one without the other, but that doesn’t justify the passing of loved ones. Death might be the mother of beauty, but just how beautiful are the deaths of our mothers?
Mark Kozelek, alias Sun Kil Moon, doesn’t ask this question on his new album “Benji,” but the entire thing sounds like something of an answer. He offers no cure-all for grief, but still finds ways to make us laugh. “Benji” is one of the saddest, most poignant albums released this decade, and the most deeply, awkwardly and honestly human.
My first attempt to listen to it took place at 2:00 a.m. on a Friday night. I barely made it past the instant-classic opening lines of “Oh Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child / The last time I saw you, you were fifteen and pregnant and running wild” before protesting to the night that it was just too damn sad. I tried again the next day, only to find myself crying in Hawthorne-Longfellow Library as Carissa’s story unfolded.
“Benji” is about stories and how our memories relate to each other to form some graspable narrative. It feels more like short story cycle than an album. The feeling is compounded by the fact that Kozelek doesn’t sing songs. He mumbles them like the soft and gentle sound of euthanasia, without concern for chorus or meter, a stream-of-consciousness vomit befitting King Kendrick. Sure, there’s an acoustic guitar, and even a soft-rock sax on closer “Ben’s My Friend,” but these instruments merely add interest. The emphasis on his writing is awkward as he crams weighty lines into fractured meters. This unbalanced eeriness turns the listener into a healthy visitor peering from room to room in a hospice home.
Kozelek’s brutal, gut-wrenching honesty would border on the voyeuristic if not for his ability to sound tender and intensely human when discussing his cousin’s fiery death. The closest he comes to a chorus is in the lilting lullaby line “Carissa was 35, you don’t just raise two kids, take out your trash, and die.”
Her death is made all the more tragic by its circumstance, the moment when “an aerosol can blew up in the trash,” reducing her home to a hell just as she was about to “start her midnight shift as RN in Wadsworth.” But then—get this—we find that her grandfather, Kozelek’s uncle, died in the exact same way. It’s true, if only because you can’t make this shit up. “Goddamn,” Kozelek muses, deadpan, “what were the odds?”
The only solutions to life’s absurd sadness that Kozelek envisions are the stories he weaves. On “Pray for Newtown,” he freely admits that he’s no praying man, and that maybe if he were, death wouldn’t seem so senseless. The best he can do, then, is to “sing and pray for women and children and moms and dads and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts” affected by the massacre. He knows how woefully inadequate his poultice is for despair, but that shouldn’t stop us, when we’re getting married or out shopping, from reflecting. Memory may hinder our ability to move on, but Kozelek implores us to cherish what we do remember—about our relatives, our first loves, our childhoods—before we lose them to Alzheimer’s or rogue aerosol spray cans.
“Now to find some poetry, to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning,” Kozelek sings on “Carissa,” sounding unconvinced that he can, but assuring his dead cousin anyway: “I’ll sing your name across every sea.”