On his latest album, Mark Kozelek ponders life’s persistent questions—and even finds a few of the answers.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Death, death, death, death. The Pale Rider gallops through Mark Kozelek’s latest LP via every imaginable avenue: relatives who die too young, the impending passing of parents, the random victims of serial killers and gun fanatics, accidental fire victims (two of them!), the euthanized, and, underlying this all, the death of our younger selves. For, in the end, that’s the real story behind Benji (Caldo Verde Records) — the middle-age awakening of mortality as the friends, relatives and acquaintances who people our lives lose theirs, leaving behind only memories.
One paragraph in, many of you will have run for the Internet hills and more light-hearted fare —Parliament/Funkadelic or Black Sabbath would qualify. But if you find solace in commiseration and beauty in the bonds that honest, well-told stories build between us, then Benji’s 11 story-eulogies will leave you marvelling.
Dating back to his Red House Painters days, Kozelek has always filtered the world through first-person story-telling. Recasting himself as Sun Kil Moon in the early 2000s, he expanded his sonic palette with more orchestral arrangements and the occasional Crazy Horse guitar epic. He also added dark, wry humor now and then, but the song and narrative formulas remain essentially unchanged.
All this confessional introspection could, in the wrong hands, be reduced to the self-centered navel-gazing of the average narcissist. And over his last few lackluster releases, Kozelek seemed to have mined that vein dry. But these new stories — a young cousin’s accidental death in “Carissa,” an old man’s mercy killing of his sick wife in “Jim Wise,” the numbing litany of mass gun killings (“Pray for Newton”) — come embedded with strings of memories so vivid they can’t help but ignite our own.
Benji’s stories are spotted with a novelist’s detail and unfold like chapters in a memoir. Over an intensifying tempo, “Dogs” recounts Kozelek’s sexual initiation from his first kisses to first fucks, but pivots on broken hearts given and received. He bemoans the capricious nature of love, including one relationship that stretched from Red Lobster visits to Tangiers trips: “She had motherly love, she was warm and she cared/she was a beautiful girl and she had a big heart/but I drifted away…”
Similarly, as the 10 minutes of “I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same” spool out, Kozelek uses the Zeppelin concert movie to frame not just his musical career, but what music has meant along the way. Right away he’s drawn to the more melancholic fare of “No Quarter” and “Rain Song,” though his understanding of why at this tender age is incomplete. Still, he recognizes the ties between those indigo moods and the deaths that first affect him, like “the girl who sat in front of me in remedial/(who) was killed in an accident one weekend /and quickly forgotten about at school.” By the time he sees the film again, it’s the deaths of John Bonham and Peter Grant that stick with him, only now he’s come to terms with his own melancholic tendencies and is grateful for the outlet his music provides.
Kozelek has stripped down the songcraft here to put the emphasis even more squarely on the stories. Since 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises, Kozelek’s relied on the warm tones of nylon acoustic guitar to accompany his nocturnal tales, double-tracking his vocals or adding strings for depth and texture. Benji’s songs rely almost entirely on repeated finger-picked patterns rather than strummed chord progressions, and only rarely does Kozelek switch up instrumentation (the keys on “I Love My Dad,” horns on “Ben’s My Friend”) or highlight the occasional cameo (Steve Shelley, Jen Wood and Will Oldham among them).
Still, for all its bleak fare, there’s warmth here that’s been drawing critics and listeners in. Kozelek’s laconic, smoke-cured croak spills out the stories in a semi-spoken word style, each line tending to dissolve just like our memories. In capturing the quotidian – hornet stings and pizza runs, calling the plumber and recording an LP — and using it to frame the deaths, loves, break-ups and funerals, Kozelek replicates the rhythm of our lives, the tricks of memory, and the portents we later find in seemingly banal moments. And isn’t that the goal of any good story?