The exceptionally talented artist stands in front of the venue. Another evening in another dumb city filled with dumb people. The show is over, and he is confident that he slayed it tonight. Just killed it. The crowd, made mostly of quiet, polite white people with Public Radio memberships just fucking loved it. Taking in the cool, late night air, he wanders around the sidewalk, trying to stretch out his back muscles. His back hurts so much—so fucking much. He’ll tell anybody who is willing to listen about it. He’s getting older. His life, the way he looks at it anyway, while charmed in appearance, is, in actuality, incredibly difficult.
As the artist lumbers around, he feels his phone buzz. A new text message arrives. He removes the phone from his jacket pocket and begins to enter the passcode to unlock it—he “finger fucks” the screen, as he would say. The text message reads—“Yo Koz. What it do? How was the show tonight? Hope you aren’t balls deep in groupie pussy right now. Come hang out later. We’ll grab a pizza.” The message is from Ben Gibbard. “Ben’s my friend,” the artist thinks to himself, as he reads this message, his old eyes squinting slightly to look at the screen of his phone.
Just then, the artist hears laughter. Young, female sounding laughter. He’s alert. He looks up and sees a small group of young women standing around in front of the venue. Two young blondes, and a cute Asian girl—all of them dressed well for a night out—stand around in a cluster. “Aw yeah,” he thinks, as he straightens up his aching back, sucking in his gut—“time to turn on some of that old Kozelek charm.”
“Evening, bitches,” he says, as he sidles up towards their group. “Did you enjoy the show tonight?”
The girls look confused, and disinterested, as they barely manage to pull their eyes away from their iPhones with pink, sparkly cases. “Huh?” one of the blondes musters.
The artist laughs a little. “The show tonight,” he says. “Presumably you came out to hear me pluck the acoustic guitar and sing a bunch of sad shit for, like, 90 minutes. That was me up there on the stage. So what’s good tonight, ladies? Are you all D.T.F?”
The cute Asian girl rolls her eyes. One of the other women speaks up, “Oh right. Yeah. You were okay. Your songs all sound the same though. Why are you so old and boring?” The girls all start to laugh. He laughs a little too—but then he realizes that he’s the butt of their joke, and they all start to walk away from him.
“Hey,” the artist shouts after them—“20 years ago, you all would have been begging to suck my dick right here on the sidewalk! I was in the fucking Red House Painters!”
As he watches them fade into the night, he notices a gaggle of young men, nervously shifting from tennis shoe to tennis shoe, clutching an alarming amount of ephemera purchased from his very own merchandise table at the show: screen printed posters, limited edition white vinyl LPs, et. al. You name it; they have it in their fat, sweaty hands.
“Oh shit,” he mumbles under his breath, his voice sounding flat without the added reverberation he’s used to singing through when on stage.
The cute girls are a distant memory now, and they have been replaced with the group of young men—pudgy, ugly dudes in western shirts, who are all now walking towards him with smiles on their faces.
“Mark!” they begin to say. “Mark! Hey! Will you sign my limited edition white vinyl LP?”
The artist sighs. It’s a long, exasperated sigh. He stops to think about the cute girls he will never have the chance to bang. He thinks about his friend Ben, and the possibility of pizza. He thinks about everybody he’s ever known; everybody who has lived, and everyone who has died. He thinks about every mistake he’s ever made in his entire life.
“Sure, kid,” he resigns. “I’ll sign your shit. Who do I make it out to?”
The artist knows that somewhere in this, there’s a song.
Occasionally, I like to think of a world where Mark Kozelek—the former frontman of The Red House Painters, current frontman of Sun Kil Moon, occasional solo artist, and all around asshole—just stopped putting out music in 2008, after the release of April. Like, if he released the album, realized that he was never going to top it—never write any songs that were better than those songs—and was like, “Hey guys, I think I’m just going to call it a day.”
That world, however, is only fictional. Because unfortunately, Mark Kozelek has continued to release music since 2008, and over the course of the last six years, his output, while growing ever prolific, the quality has worsened to the point where it is beyond laughable.
This is, believe it or not, an opinion that is more than likely in the minority. The internet is full of Kozelek apologists (check the Sad Reminders message board if you don’t believe me), people who can easily write off his on-stage behavior, people who think 2010’s Admiral Fell Promises was one of his best records (it wasn’t) and people who think his new approach to “songwriting” is refreshing (it’s not.) But not only does he have his fanbase confused and on board with whatever he’s shoveling, now he’s also got critics in his pocket as well—known idiot Ian Cohen took a break from pushing his own secret Emo agenda at Pitchfork to review Benji, giving it a staggering and undeserved 9.2.
A nine point fucking two.
Kozelek’s latest shit show, excuse me, offering, comes under the Sun Kil Moon moniker—Benji is an 11-track meditation on life and death. It’s a look back through Kozelek’s life, as he crafts portraits of his mother and father, distant relatives, women he has either tried to or has successfully banged, friends of the family, and Ben Gibbard.
“I’ve run out of metaphors,” he confessed to P4K writer Brandon Stosuy in a recent interview—and well hey, I’m glad that he’s finally being honest about his approach to music these days. Kozelek’s “self-aware” period started in 2010, when he began writing himself into the songs—not even in a metaphorical way, but in a “Hey I’m Mark Kozelek, and here’s my shitty life, set to the tune of nylon string acoustic guitar music.” His lyrics, once incredibly poignant and heartbreaking, became the kind of boring, #firstworldproblems, #whitepeopleproblems that you would save for your diary, or to complain to your spouse about at dinner. He became my generation’s Randy Newman.
Kozlek’s lack of grace in his way with words now is not without its moments of clarity—there are some rather simply stated and stark realizations that are somewhat moving on Benji. On the album’s opening track “Carrisa”, dedicated to his second cousin, “Carissa was 35, you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die,” he mumbles.
And that’s another thing worth mentioning here—Benji at times, serves as a warning about aerosol can safety. Apparently, in small, rural towns in Ohio, aerosol can explosions can kill you; and that they in fact, DO kill you—two people die by aerosol can explosion on this record.
So let’s talk about the positive things happening on Benji, because believe it or not, there are a few. There are some tracks where Kozelek has opted to include additional instrumentation, which is incredibly refreshing to hear after the amount of albums he’s been churning out that are just him and the acoustic guitar. He’s far from plugging in an electric guitar into an amp on Benji, but on “I Love My Dad,” “Richard Rameriez Died Today of Natural Causes,” “Dogs,” and “Ben’s My Friend,” he’s backed by a minimal rhythm section, which assists in at least making the songs musically interesting to listen to. From a production standpoint, the drums sound great—a mix of crispness and a very raw/”live in the room” sound—and it gives those tracks an organic feeling.
Two of those songs also feature some very left field additions—on “I Love My Dad,” soulful backup singers arrive seemingly out of nowhere; and on the closing track, “Ben’s My Friend,” for what I believe to be the first time, Koz is includes a horn arrangement—giving the song’s vibe a bit of a questionably serious/questionably ironic “smooth” sound. And on “Dogs,” which we will discuss in greater detail in a bit, he uses an interesting and attention grabbing lo-fi production technique in the intro before the rest of the song kicks in.
One production trick that is met with mixed results on Benji is Kozelek’s penchant for multi-tracking his vocals, but for said tracks not to line up. It’s one thing to do it to add warmth, or depth, to your own voice, but in his hands, it’s very jumbled and jarring, creating an uncomfortable listen.
Structurally, Benji is frontloaded with songs that, for the most part, avoid Kozelek’s recent songwriting pitfalls, but he can’t help but backslide into that by the end—on “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes,” he begins the song talking about its namesake, but by the end, he’s breathlessly carrying on about the kind of things you would save for a Facebook status update, a series of tweets, or a Live Journal entry. They include, but are not limited to: the death of actor James Gandofini, Kozelek’s prostate, bad back, and his inability to fuck without feeling like he’s going to have a heart attack.
Lyrically, even when he’s not carrying on about his pitiful existence, he chooses to let his thoughts just ramble—at times, almost incoherently. There’s seemingly no real thought to his delivery; it’s more like, “Oh shit it’s time to sing—deep breath—“ and then out it comes. Also, I have no idea what this dude has done to his voice in the last six years to ravage it like he has here, but goddamn. Koz’s “sad bastard” style of singing, drench in cavernous echo, was always an acquired taste, but at least in the days of the Red House Painters, and in the early incarnation of Sun Kil Moon—dude put forth some effort, and to me, I thought his voice fit the style of music he was playing. All that’s gone now, and I would describe Kozelek’s singing voice as more of a croak, and at times, a yelp—croaking and yelping about his awful, yet charmed life. He admits on “I Can’t Live Without My Mother” that one could consider his life to be “charmed,” yet he has continued to make a living out of unpoetically singing of his own miserable, middle-aged existence.
If you haven’t already figured it out by now, as the word count of this is well over 1,700, I didn’t like this album. I didn’t even go into it with an open mind—I knew I wouldn’t like it, and I knew I’d like it even less after I read the piece that accompanied the 9.2 rating bestowed from on high. I started to write Mark Kozelek off after I realized that a bulk of Admiral Fell Promises was a bore, and I couldn’t even fathom sitting down to listen to his 2012 Sun Kil Moon record—the incredibly cringeworthy and earnest Among The Leaves, where he discusses, amongst other things, bringing home V.D. to his girlfriend.
The last time I gave Kozelek an honest chance was last summer, when he dropped a collaborative album with the primarily instrumental outfit Desertshore—aptly titled Mark Kozelek and Desertshore. Kozelek had played bass and sang on a few of the songs that made up Desertshore previous album and very underrated Drawing of Threes, a record that arrived at the tail end of 2011. On that record, it was incredibly refreshing to hear him singing with a band again—a band using electric guitars. What a novelty, I know! However, his second pairing with Desertshore was pretty much intolerable. More of his same journal entry lyrics—I mean, it’s one thing to do that on your own albums, but to drag another band into it now as well? Come on Koz. You’re killing me by an audio aerosol can explosion.
One thing he chose to do on Mark Kozelek and Desertshore was an attempt at igniting some kind of beef with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, and it’s a beef that he continues to bait on Benji, in a throwaway line on “I Love My Dad.” It’s a cheap shot and a dumb gimmick. Kozelek, damn dude—you aren’t Tupac. Nels Cline isn’t Biggie Smalls. Just don’t, okay? Don’t. It’s probably never going to come to blows, but seriously—Cline rolls in a crew six deep. Kozelek—you’re just you. And if you keep it up, I would not be surprised if Jeff Tweedy himself rolled up and merked you.
The absolute lowest point on Benji arrives on the aforementioned track “Dogs,” a very quickly paced track where Kozelek, in great (and mortifying) detail, recalls the loves of his life. It begins early on with his first kiss, moving quickly into his early sexual experiences—“Mary Ann was my first fuck,” he states bluntly. “I went with her friend first, but I couldn’t get it in. And when she caught me with Mary Ann, her heart was broken.”
Cool story Koz.
Later on, after he grows out of the phase of just needing to “get it in” with someone, he romances a woman named Deborah by taking her to Red Lobster. I’m sure their date went something like this: “Hey, uh, I bought you these Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Can we fuck now?”
The worst thing someone can do when trying to listen to Benji is to go back to any early Kozelek material. It’s a mistake I made while waiting for my wife to finish up with her orchestra rehearsal the other day. I started listening to April, and as I sat in the car, I was overcome with the horrible realization that the Mark Kozelek that I enjoyed is long gone, and he’ll never make another record like that, like Ghosts of The Great Highway, like Songs For a Blue Guitar—and all that’s left is a curmudgeonly, aging troubadour, croaking out insults at his fans, prattling on about how much tail he’s chased, and what he ate for breakfast.
It is practically unfathomable to me that there is an audience for a record like Benji. There is though—anyone who eats up what Pitchfork force-feeds them as “Best New Music” will at least take a listen based on the rating this received alone. And there are hordes of Kozelek fans that are willing to turn a blind eye to the plummeting quality of his latter day canon, claiming they find his songwriting of current day pleasant because it “makes them reflect on their own seemingly insignificant experiences through a cinematic filter.”
And to that, I say if you want a cinematic filter, then look through the world using Instagram. There is nothing cinematic about Mark Kozelek’s current view of the world and Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is proof of that. If anything, it’s not cinema—it’s just a boring documentary series that no one wants to watch.
(For more of Kevin’s amazingness check out Anhedonic Headphones.)
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. Since the summer of 2017, he began contributing “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing has also appeared in The Wagazine, and in River Valley Woman. He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.