In a smoky, dim billiards bar in a quiet Malaysian suburb I grew up in, mournful music from Sam Hui came out of the room’s stereo system. It drowned the sound of pool cues triggering chains of bad physics estimations. The beer grew warmer quicker, phones lit and vibrated unanswered, and cigarette ends grew like Microsoft XP loading bars. My pool partner uncurled from his shooting stance and asked his friend—the bar owner—about the music choice. To this, he answered that he was going through a period of heartbreak. My perplexed friend then threw his arms in the air, pool stick still in hand, “well play some happier music then!”
For those not in the know: Sam Hui was a Cantopop singer who was active primarily in the 70s and 80s. While known for taking 50s rock n’ roll songs and infusing them with Cantonese lyrics which critiqued, satirised, and also took pride in Hong Kong society, he also did love ballads that made you cry even if you didn’t understand the language or knew love. Sam Hui was also very much a singer of his time and thus guzhengs and flutes accompanied synthesizers and wailing guitars. In other words, not music to get you channeling your Efren Reyes.
When’s it alright to wallow in our sadness? How much would upbeat music help our depressed bar owner anyway? In what contexts is music like Benji enjoyable? When and how do I recommend it to anyone?
Benji starts off with Sun Kil Moon’s solo member Mark Kozelek singing about going back to Ohio to mourn the death of his second cousin who died in a fire. It’s followed by Kozelek wondering what life will be like when his mother passes too, inevitably. Then, it’s a song about his uncle who also departed like his second cousin. There’s a song about the Newtown shootings, unrequited love, and memories of his father. These are immensely private, biographical songs.
Kozelek’s voice isn’t particularly tuneful. In fact, it sounds more like someone improvising a speech over lackadaisical guitar-playing. Yet, make no mistake, Kozelek’s a very accomplished guitar player as even he acknowledges, “I can play just fine/I still practice a lot but not as much as Nels Cline”. His ability to keep track of the cadence over long uninterrupted phrases is something I’m rather in awe of. There are also some beautiful arpeggios and fingerpicking patterns. The apparent laziness which Kozelek can give off is due more to his drawn out singing style and oft-haphazard rhyming scheme. Of course, the latter is necessary. In an album largely about the ungraspable concept of death, nothing is meant to be clean-cut, simple, and structured.
The portrayal of himself in Benji is that of a cursed songwriter. It’s with confidence that he sings on ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’, that “this beautiful musical world” was meant for him. Outside of hip-hop I’ve never heard any artist sing about their own musical talents, but Kozelek suggests that talent comes with the curse of eternal melancholia. Unfortunately, albums like Benji don’t have many appropriate contexts. When he sings about the gap between good friend Ben Gibbard’s (of Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service—while not necessarily more cheerful at least benefits from a happier voice) ticket sales count and his own, it’s with jealousy. Again, who sings about this? How do I tell you to play it at your house party?
Thing is, you don’t. To be melancholic is one thing, to be able to express it via music is another. Benji is captivating, both for its voyeuristic aspect (we are sometimes, after all, entranced by tragedies), but also for the small inkling nagging in the back of your head which says everyone has their nightmares and worst fears, including you. In an age where we wake up to news of mass killings and airplane crashes, where we watch people around us fall to unnatural causes and still believe we’re immortal, where we have less and less time to spread our love to those we do, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is the equivalent of a private chat with someone who’s been there and done that—and that’s strangely comforting.