Given that Mark Kozelek seemed to spend much of the year trying to whittle down his new found fan base till it numbered only those people who share his bizarre disdain for Adam Granduciel and The War On Drugs, it’s easy to forget just what a darling of the indie press he was around the release of his Benji album as Sun Kil Moon way back in February. Easy, that is, until you press play on the thing, and it becomes difficult to not fall head over heels in love with it all over.
Why give him the ‘songwriter of the year’ accolade rather than ‘album of the year’, then? Well, one reason is we really love The War On Drugs too. It is possible, and recommended, to make room in your heart for both. But the other is that ‘songwriter’ - a term that’s timeless, if not old fashioned - seems to suit Kozelek better than any of the other folks whose backsides we’re blowing smoke up across the course of this December. There might be more rewarding front-to-back albums, or a more stand out individual song, this year. But the best songwriter? This guy.
For one thing, Mark Kozelek is the most captivating lyricist I’ve heard since Morrissey started saying nothing to me about myyy liiiiife. Yes, he’s often so blatant in his wordplay that he makes Randy Newman seem like Captain Beefheart, but as Ray Honeybourne noted in his review of Benji - discussing the song “Pray For Newtown” - he’s not without nuance. Quoting the line “There were shootings at a Portland mall/It was everyday America – and that’s all”, Ray praises how “the said and the implied unsaid create the eloquence” to a line that could be understood by a five year old, yet contains so much horror that anyone of any age would be given the shivers if they contemplated it for long.
Outside of Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads or Eels’ Electro Shock Blues, it’s difficult to think of a record on which death happens quite so thick and fast, and yet upon seeing these songs performed live – as I was lucky enough to at St. John at Hackney Church last week – what’s most remarkable is how brimming with life they feel; each of them open to improvisation, rearrangement and prone to moments where even Kozelek himself visibly seems taken aback by the sadness of the subject matter (a stunning “Michelene” in particular put him, and us, through the mill a few times over). If not my gig of the year – close, mind – it was certainly the funniest, strangest, and most intense evening I had in 2014. And that’s quite something to say about a gig that also included a lot of Christmas carols.
Kozelek began the set that evening by speaking directly to the audience. “I’m a nice person”, he said, as if trying to ease the collective nervousness in the room. “Just because I don’t like Adam...whatever his name is…doesn’t mean I hate the human race.” And he doesn’t. He really, really loves some of them, and when Benji isn’t grieving over people he’s lost, he’s making sure everybody knows how much the ones he has left mean to him. “I Love My Dad” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”, he tells us with a straight face (“My mother is 75, she’s the closest friend that I have in my life”). In the song “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”, he’s at pains to stress how thankful he is to 4AD Records founder Ivo Watts Russell for giving him his first break. Plenty of folks think they’ve had reason to doubt just how nice exactly Mark Kozelek is this year, but in these songs at least – part of their excellence being just how much of the man’s personality they lay bare before you – he’s an absolute sweetheart. (Sure, in “Ben’s My Friend” he admits being jealous of Ben Gibbard’s success, but fuck it, so am I).
There are so many standout moments on Benji that my favourite track changes as often as people in its cast perish. A perennial favourite is the story of “Jim Wise”, a man on house arrest after mercy killing his terminally ill wife and trying – but failing – to commit suicide himself moments after. Pointing something that macabre out as a highlight can only stress how Benji is, admittedly, a lot to digest in one sitting. It’s in good company when it comes to uncomfortable moments, too; call it prudishness, but I for one get uneasy listening to the chronology of Kozelek’s sexual awakening that’s detailed in graphical detail in “Dogs”, not because it’s full of innuendo or smut, but due to it being quite so matter of fact. And still, I can’t deny its force.
That’s got much to do with the other half of Kozelek’s song writing chops; he’s simply an excellent musician who knows his way around a tune and a fret board. The melodies are astonishing, the vocals beautifully performed (never under nor over emoted), and the sound of the nylon string guitars so close in the ear that it almost feels like it’s encroaching on your personal space. The record is also expertly sequenced and paced, not just from song to song, but within individual tracks. As Ray Honeybourne also noted for us of “Dogs”, it’s “a catalogue of largely unsuccessful relationships (often a treacherous starting point for less capable songwriters) [that] succeeds through the considered increase in pace that convinces us that a cumulative lesson has been well and truly learned.”
“Don’t believe what you read on the internet”, Kozelek implored the congregation of St. John at Hackney Church last week, which kinda renders this entire endeavour null and void. But trust me on this. There was another little between song aside that both made me laugh and got me thinking. Again addressing Granduciel and The Bloody War On Drugs Thing, a resigned Kozelek reminded himself and everyone else that, in the grand scheme of things, “Nobody gives a fuck who we are, and the ones who do, can’t pronounce our last names.” That might be true. But thanks to Benji, we do know the names of Carissa, Jim Wise, Michelene, Brett, Katie Carlin, Shelley and Amber, Mary Ann, Deborah, Billy Breslin, Mark Denton, Mary Kozelek and Jim Evans. Obviously I didn’t know any of them, but the ones who died, man am I sad about that. That’s how good a songwriter Mark Kozelek is.
Benji is out now via Caldo Verde Records.