Is Sun Kil Moon's 'Benji' The Great American Novel?

benji“I’m not one to pray/But I’m one to sing and play.”
“Pray for Newtown”

All great music should tell a story. Some musicians tell those stories more literally than others: Mark Kozelek, currently of Sun Kil Moon and formerly of Red House Painters, is one such musician. Last week, as a kind of foreword to his forthcoming album Benji, Kozelek outlined a list of themes, events, and influences for the record in an Opinionator piece for the New York Times. He signed off the op-ed with the comment, “This song, like the rest of the album, is a thank-you to those who have inspired me along the way, and an apology to a few, as well.”

However, when I listened through Benji, I didn’t read it so much as a thank you or an apology; instead, I read it as a kind of Great American Novel—and note, I choose the word “read” here intentionally. That’s because great albums can function like novels—or, in the case of Benji, like memoirs (Bob Dylan, as an example, has been suggested for the Nobel Prize in Literature; the Times once designated the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street “rock ‘n’ roll’s version of the Great American Novel”). What makes Benji even more novelistic to me is, when you get right down to the songwriting, the words and structures aren’t lyrical. Kozelek’s lines rarely end in rhyme, there are almost no choruses, and there seems to be little consideration for the sounds and rhythms of the words he sings:

“Yesterday morning I woke up to so many 330 area calls, I called my mom back and she was in tears and I asked and I spoke to my father, Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire.”
—“Carissa”

Instead, the writing in Benji sounds as if Kozelek has opened up his diary and is reading it aloud. It’s not that the music is confessional necessarily, but rather there’s the impression this record is an account, a document, a reflection and, eventually, a meditation. Occasionally, the words are jarringly prosaic, such as when Kozelek references Panera Bread or Red Lobster mid-verse. But this is just another reason why I found myself so deeply interested in Sun Kil Moon’s latest: because it is a collection of short stories more than it is a collection of songs—if the two must be insisted on being exclusive.

With most of the album centered in Ohio, Kozelek features rednecks, criminals, growing old, sex, friends and family, loss, heartbreak and mortality. And what’s remarkable is, I put my complete faith into Kozelek’s histories and his truths. The reason Benji is successful is not because it’s a monument of storytelling or because it’s a lyrical masterpiece—although it is, in fact, a kind of masterpiece. Instead, Benji works because it is true. And beyond being true to Kozelek’s personal experience, it is, at its heart, an encompassing and convincing contemporary American portrait. To this end, Kozelek has no hesitation in name-dropping brands or inserting unrecognizable locations to create a sense of place, because of the very fact that the album is autobiographical. To weaken Benji would be to confess fictions and fabrications.

“I was a junior in high school when I turned the TV on, James Huberty went to a restaurant and shot everyone up with a machine gun, he was from my hometown, we talked about it ‘til the sun went down, and everybody got up and stretched and yawned, and their lives went on.”
—“Pray for Newtown”

Writing his extremely positive review for Pitchfork, critic Ian Cohen Googled the locations in Benji and fact-checked other references, concluding that at least a large part of the album, if not all of it, is true. Cohen writes, “Kozelek’s reaction to both aerosol can-related deaths in his family are basically, ‘you can’t make this shit up.’ But what if he did make this shit up?” While Cohen goes on to state that, in his opinion, such imagination and persuasion would make Benji all the more remarkable, I think the stories would feel hollow without their real, and not imagined, honesty. Benji as fiction would be clunky and insubstantial, amusing where it shouldn’t be (“you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die”).

It’s funny that I have such an insistence for truth on this particular record. Clearly not all artists are as rich in authentic experience and emotion as Kozelek. A book lover myself, I know best that the most real stories are often the ones that have been made up. I think it is the rawness in Benji that makes me need every word to be real—being lied to by Kozelek would be like being lied to by a dear uncle, or favorite cousin. It’d be like learning all of your family mythologies were made up for the sake of entertaining you.

This leads me to my next question—would Kozelek make a great novelist? I’m not sure; again, the lack of obvious consideration for words and sounds makes me think that Benji is closer to Kozelek’s heart than it is an attempt at being a great piece of literature. To that end, I sure would love to read Kozelek’s memoir. Then again, maybe I already have.