This record moves me deeply. So does the previous Sun Kil Moon record, 2012’s Among the Leaves, and the two records under Mark Kozelek’s own name that came out in between (Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle’s Perils from the Sea and the Mark Kozelek & Desertshore album). In fact, I found myself listening to Among the Leaves all the way through nearly every day of a recent six-week solo tour. What is going on here?
In the ’90s, I didn’t own any albums by Kozelek’s band Red House Painters, but most of my friends were big fans, so I heard a lot of that band. I liked them pretty well but never felt a strong enough connection to have my own relationship with them. It was soft, brilliant songcraft — elegant, beautifully vague stories and vivid poetry that made listeners of all genders swoon — but it was somewhat aloof, didn’t directly reveal much of Kozelek himself. But the songwriting on his four most recent albums took quite a different turn. For some reason Kozelek is now revealing everything. Each of the 38 songs on the three albums before Benji reveal detail after detail (some intimate, some mundane) about his life, music career, relationships, and attitudes about the world. It’s stunning (and sometimes hilarious) to behold the risk you can’t help but feel he’s taking by being so open. (As in a song in which he confesses to his girlfriend that he picked up VD on tour.) It’s a high-wire balancing act, but nearly every little moment passes muster (although sometimes just barely). And as all the details pile up, song by song, the picture of the man and artist that emerges is magnetic. This is autobiographical confessional songwriting in its most direct and almost stream-of-consciousness form, and it enthralls like a favorite new TV series: you’re addicted to the character development.
And then comes Benji: the same basic mine-every-detail-of-your-life-for-poetry songwriting blueprint, but with even more depth, more vulnerable, urgent, vanity-less, must-get-it out intensity. Even with drums on only four of the 11 songs Benji sounds more raw and desperate than the previous three albums. The sound is mostly made up of spacious layers of Kozelek’s harmonically rich nylon-string acoustic. On most songs he picks out a brooding fingerpicking pattern over and over, building intensity through repetition while spitting lyrics in a warm yet slightly manic baritone. I should mention here too that he has become an absurdly good guitar player. He’s as reserved and tasteful as he is technically expert so the playing is never too ornate or noodley for the songs.
While Kozelek does include a mountain of minor lyrical details in each song to get to where he’s headed,Benji isn’t about teasing meaning out of the mundane. It’s concerned with what he calls in the gravity-defying, heart-in-your-throat album linchpin “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” “the heaviness of everything” — namely… death. In fact, eight of the 11 tracks are about death: Kozelek’s uncle, his mother, serial killer victims, his childhood friends, his dad’s friend’s wife, his… you get the picture. The crushing album opener “Carissa” is about how his second cousin, whom he hadn’t thought about for 20 years, “burned to death… in a freak accident fire”: “Everyone’s grieving/out of their minds/making arrangements and taking drugs/but I’m flying out there tomorrow because I need to give and get some hugs.” There’s something so daring about how on-the-nose that song is (and the whole album, for that matter) — not least of all rhyming “drugs” with “hugs” — but Kozelek creates a context for all that directness that makes it achingly beautiful.
Over and over, as I listen to Benji, I’m reminded of the lyric from Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”: “But you and I, we’ve been through that/and this is not our fate/ So let us not talk falsely now/The hour is getting late.” Except that while Dylan always seems to be hiding behind a character or thick layers of irony in his songs so as not to be hemmed in, pigeonholed, or vulnerable to the judgement of outsiders, Kozelek catalogues the ways he’s tethered to his family and community, childhood friends and hometown neighbors. Every single one of these songs is directly about one or other of those folks. That’s remarkable: every single song. And he doesn’t resent those entanglements; instead, he lovingly cherishes them and laments that death will unravel them all eventually, if it hasn’t already.
In the song “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” Kozelek sings: “I can live without watching the classic old fights/I can live without a lover beside me at night/I can live without what you might call a charmed life/But I can’t live without my mother providing her light.” For all the autonomy that we crave in our western lives, for all the choice and “freedom” that we try to cultivate and maximize, Benji holds dear those relationships that were formed before we had any choice at all and all the rest that we tend to either take for granted or regard as debilitating lilliputian threads. We tend not to realize that those strands aren’t just the only thing grounding us, but are the sum of our very identities — until death sneaks up with a pair of scissors and begins to snip. On Benji, Kozelek carefully reties each strand, one by one.