The first time I listened through Benji, the latest offering from Sun Kil Moon, I was wandering around Macdonald Campus trying to find a place to get a coffee. I’d finally figured out where I could buy one when the sweet organ at the beginning of “Jim Wise” came on. The song tells the story of a man on house arrest for mercy-killing his terminally ill wife, but then is unable to successfully end his own life while at her bedside in a hospital. The story engrossed me, and by its end, I found myself in a hallway I didn’t recognize, unsure of how I got there, and still without a cup of coffee in my hands.
Benji has been well received for the most part by critics and listeners, drawing praise for its lyricism above all else. It is quite literal, with singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek describing actual events from his life in a straightforward fashion, recounting specific stories without the use of metaphors or other figures of speech. This type of songwriting often leads to lyrics that are cumbersome and awkward; however, when done well, it tends to produce incredibly poignant and touching music.
Lyrics that hide most of their meaning below the surface are not inherently better or worse than the kind that Kozelek puts forth on Benji—they’re simply different. When the “verbal obfuscation,” as Ian Cohen of Pitchfork calls the former style, is wiped away, you’re left to deal with your own emotion. Instead of forcing you to dig into the lyrics, these songs make you dig into your own self, looking inward rather than outward for meaning or significance. The visceral quality of this well-executed lyricism has the ability to provoke ephemeral moments of intense listener engagement—as it did for me on Macdonald campus—and holds true across all genres, not just folk rock.
One of the best rap albums in recent memory uses this formula extraordinarily well. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city is a concept album that takes you inside his upbringing in Compton, a world where family and faith act as last lines of defence against gang violence and crime. The album’s meaning is grounded in characters and stories, not hidden behind clever wordplay, which gives added significance to the lessons and ideas that it preaches.
Another example is “Stan,” Eminem’s disturbingly vivid narrative about an imbalanced fan who communicates with the rapper through a series of letters that go unanswered—until it’s too late. Though not explicitly autobiographical, “Stan” takes the same lyrical approach as Kozelek and Lamar, and it is widely viewed as one of his best songs.
It’s hard to pinpoint examples in mainstream music where this style flat out doesn’t work. Simply put, the songs that fall short of capturing something special are likely tabled, rather than pushed by producers and labels. Even though so few unimpressive songs get released, sometimes it happens. On Benji, “Dogs” stands out as one of the lowlights, as Kozelek messily recounts past sexual experiences, but fails to find any truths about the difference between love and sex.
The Weakerthans have a catalogue filled with interesting characters and songs such as “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)”—its premise exactly what its title describes—are quite clever, but don’t manage to venture far beyond that. Stories like these function well enough in songs that disguise their meaning, but in order to succeed in the style discussed here, you need to find tales in which listeners can see themselves.
As “Stan” shows, the narratives don’t necessarily need to be true either. Sufjan Stevens is quite good at writing songs that feel more like stories, the best of which might be “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Stevens sings about a lover whose significant other is diagnosed with cancer and later passes away. It is beautiful, devastating, and entirely made up, but the fact that it is fiction doesn’t make it any less impactful. When the song is over, you’re left with a stinging feeling of loss, forced to confront some of the sadness in your own life.
On Benji’s opener “Carissa,” Kozelek sings about trying to “find some poetry [….] to find a deeper meaning/In this senseless tragedy.” But rather than a string of his own thoughts on death or loss, Kozelek tells a story and allows the audience to decide why it matters. We tend to prefer romanticised versions of our own everyday life in much of the content we consume. Though on the surface it may seem as if there is no “poetry” in our lives, it’s there; and songs like these allow us to see it.