With no disrespect to his vast and estimable catalog, it’s taken Mark Kozelek two decades to find his voice. Leaving behind the neatly ordered and poetical lyricism he developed with Red House Painters in the 1990s and refined with Sun Kil Moon in the 2000s, he adopted a rougher style (first heard on 2012′s Among the Leaves) that sounds more like prose than verse. The first evidence On Benji, his latest — arguably his best, certainly his most devastating — album, he crams his songs full of words and memories, with little regard for how they match up to cadence or meter or even rhyme. That technique can be slightly unsettling, especially when matched with the hypnotic guitar repetitions, but it’s an ideal match for the subject matter: Kozelek’s life. Benji sounds unedited, uncensored, and all the more powerful for it.
These are songs about dead relatives and old friends, full of tragedy, affection, generosity, despair, and more than a few bizarre coincidences (two family members killed by exploding aerosol cans?). There are loving odes to both of his parents as well as moving eulogies to his uncle and second cousin, yet rather than wax nostalgic, Kozelek lays everything out with brutal candor: “Carissa was 35,” he sings on the opener, “Carissa.” “You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” Benji constantly contrasts the workaday banality of life with the epic finality of death, which instills each line with both a dark humor and an emotionalism that never gets near sappy. On “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” he uses the death of the notorious Night Stalker to relate his own health problems: a bad back, weak heart, rusty pipes. At first it sounds stream-of-conscious — a journal entry set to a repetitive guitar pattern — yet the song, like the album drifts from one subject to the next with a sneaky sense of purpose, turning stray thoughts into a larger meditation on memory and death.