[7 February 2014]
One of modern music’s master storytellers has returned with the nostalgic and intensely personal Benji. Since the early nineties, former Red House Painters prolific frontman Mark Kozelek has assembled an impressive catalog, releasing one poignant recording after another. The brilliantly-crafted sixth studio album from the celebrated indie folk troubadour might possibly be the most beautifully candid record he has recorded under the Sun Kil Moon guise or any nom de plume.
Following an industrious, creative streak in 2013 that spawned a well-received covers album entitled Like Rats, two collaborative efforts, Perils of the Sea with the Album Leaf’s Jimmy LaValle, and a self-titled studio album recorded with indie rock band Desertshore, Kozelak’s muse shows no signs of abandoning him. Mortality, regret and sorrow dominate this go around. Never to be mistaken as a songwriter of the “happy” variety, Kozelak’s Benji has no intention of changing that stigma, yet its fascinating, introspective stories are strangely comforting in their sincere delivery.
Waxing philosophical one minute and making the most mundane of observations seem interesting the next, Kozelek crams so many ideas, emotions, and words into his songs that it’s almost as if the listener has been given free rein to read his private journal. The intimate arrangements usually include nothing but acoustic guitar and his voice, with everything stripped back to its bare minimum. Seemingly taking a page from his colleague Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, whose band’s songs he covered on 2005‘s Tiny Cities, Mark stuffs as many syllables and descriptions into one sentence as logistically possible. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t illicit a cringeworthy response like an overstuffed, corpulent Alanis Morissette lyric.
The nylon-stringed classical guitar flourishes that were so prominent on 2010‘s Admiral Fell Promises, resurface on tracks like the deeply sad “Truck Driver”, “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”, and “Micheline”. Occasionally, the stark presentation is injected with a bit of dark humor, such as the addition of the plonky keyboard accompaniment on “Jim Wise”, which describes the plight of one of his father’s friends with a “long white Amish man’s beard”. The gentleman mercy-killed his wife in the hospital and then unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide himself with a gun, only to later be put on house arrest, become shackled with an ankle bracelet, receive a trial, and eventually become imprisoned. I believe this is only song I’ve ever heard that references the bakery chain Panera Bread and I’m doubtful that I’ll hear another one in this lifetime.
The Will Oldham-assisted “Carissa” recounts the death of Kozelek’s second cousin, a thirty-five year old, midnight shift-working nurse who burned to death in a freak fire accident, when flammables exploded in her trashcan. Kozelek describes returning to Ohio on a plane where he grew up, reconnecting with old friends, remarking on the funeral, reflecting on his grief, as well as paying respects to her memory. The album’s stunning third song “Truck Driver” allows the listener an opportunity to take a glimpse into another painful chapter of his life, relating the strikingly similar death of his “redneck” uncle, who died in a fire on his birthday, when he threw an aerosol spray can onto a pile of burning trash in the yard. Again, the lyrics are so off-the-cuff that the mere mention of something ordinary such as Kentucky Fried Chicken served after the funeral, becomes strikingly beautiful in the context of the rest of the song. When Kozelek describes how he picked up a guitar and started performing for everyone after the ceremony, while “the frogs croaked and the mantises prayed”, it’s truly sublime in its simplicity.
The subject matter widely varies, from the sexually graphic “Dogs” that lists his past sexual trysts, to revisiting Ghosts of the Great Highway‘s topic of serial killers in “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” as he previously did in the song “Glenn Tipton”. The lovely “Micheline” describes a humorous childhood memory of a girl, who would knock on his family’s front door and ask to take a bath with Mark. The stream of conscious lyrics bounce around topics such as meeting his grandmother for the first time in Los Angeles where he heard David Bowie’s album Young Americans, watching the dog-in-peril movie Benji, and seeing a friend of his drop dead from a brain aneurism at band practice.
“I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” contains some of the most touching lyricism Kozelek has ever put to record. Tenderly discussing his 75-year-old mother, he says, “When she’s gone, I’ll miss our slow, easy walks / Playing Scrabble, the chimes of the grandfather clock / I’ll even miss the times we fought / But mostly I’ll miss being able to call her and talk / When the day comes for her to leave / I won’t have the courage to sort through her things.” From family to firearms, “Pray for Newtown” angrily sparks a discussion on gun violence both in America and around the globe. The tragedy of the title is addressed, as well as the cinema shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and the death of 77 Norwegian adults and children on the island of Utoya by 33 year old Anders Behring Breivik. By the song’s end, it’s quite clear where Kozelek stands on the matter.
Appearing out of essentially nowhere, the mid-tempo, nylon-stringed guitar and saxophone-lounge vibe of “Ben’s My Friend” serves as a refreshingly odd conclusion to such a devastatingly melancholic album. Both an ode to friendship between two fellow musicians, and an awkwardly humorous commentary on the disparity of fame between them, it’s one of the album’s obvious highlights. The Postal Service and Red House Painters performed together at a Spanish music festival in 2000 and Kozelek’s band was the household name at the time. Years later, frontman Benjamin Gibbard invited Mark to The Greek Theatre in LA where he was surrounded by 8,000 screaming fans. After the concert had concluded, he declined going backstage to meet Benjamin and his bandmates, giving his passes to two Asian girls and thanking his friend over the phone for “the nice music and the exercise”, noting that “there’s a thin line between a middle-aged guy with a backstage pass and a guy with a gut, hangin’ round like a jack-ass.” Jealousy has never been so amusingly documented.
From his early days in the Red House Painters on the 4AD label, to the collaborative recordings of recent years, it’s evident that while he’s garnered the respect of his peers and is regarded as one of the key influential figures in the genre of slowcore, it’s also a rather unfortunate reality that his songwriting talents will probably continue to elude the wider fame he so justly deserves. Sardonic, scathingly witty at times, and always painfully autobiographical, Benji is the sound of an artist giving his heart to his fans and saying, “Do with it what you will.” That kind of vulnerability is a rare quality in the music business and as such, should be revered.