Twenty-four hours before this story was due, I had a deliciously sarcastic lead written about the improbability of a sad-sack 48-year-old singer-songwriter seizing the pop-culture zeitgeist in 2014 with an album of stark folk recitations and a protracted Internet pissing match. Then a childhood friend of mine died a sudden, senseless death, so I scrapped nearly all of it and listened to Benji five more times.
Released last February under the name Sun Kil Moon, Mark Kozelek's regular solo pseudonym, Benji's 11 songs are swollen with devastating (and mostly true) detail: flying home to Ohio for the funerals of a second cousin and an uncle who, years apart, died in freak trash fires. Comprehending the loss of a friend who "dropped like a deer was shot" by an "aneurysm triggered by a nerve in his hand from the strain" of playing guitar. The everyday banalities cut short when confronted by the news of our country's latest mass shooting. Being reminded of life as a melancholy suburban loner while watching The Song Remains the Same. Visiting his dad's old friend Jim Wise, who "mercy killed his wife" before he "put the gun to his head and it jammed" and he "failed at suicide."
Although the album wears few embellishments beyond Kozelek's plainspoken baritone and fingerpicked guitar, Benji still ended up at or near the top of every major year-end list. But Kozelek, who began his musical career in the early '90s with cult indie rockers Red House Painters and has more than 20 excellent albums under his belt, puts little stock in such affirmations of his talent. "NME and Melody were telling me I was a genius in 1992, so I got over that in 1995," he tells Orlando Weekly in a succinct email interview. "I'm back to work on another album. ... I'm almost 48 [and] have been doing this a while now. With experience, you get more relaxed and confident."
Kozelek received a harsh lesson in overconfidence last September, though, when he briefly became an object of online derision. While performing at North Carolina's Hopscotch Music Festival, he implored a talkative audience of "fucking hillbillies" to "shut the fuck up"; a week later, he complained to an Ottawa Folk Festival crowd about noise bleed from an adjacent stage, where Philadelphia soft-rockers the War on Drugs were playing. Kozelek said he couldn't stand the band's "beer-commercial lead-guitar shit," and then added, "This next song is called 'The War on Drugs Can Suck My Fucking Dick.'" Two weeks later, he actually wrote a song with that name, tried to get TWOD frontman Adam Granofsky to play it with him in San Francisco, and then engaged in a very public Internet back-and-forth when Granofsky (and many, many others) called him on his confrontational bullshit.
Predictably, in our interview, Kozelek left most questions about those incidents unanswered. But he did manage to briefly flash his famously pugilistic perspective when asked about visiting Florida. "I like the food down there, and [the] beaches are nice," he said. "[But the] shows are hit or miss. Last time I played, some R&B band was playing on the other side of the wall, and it ruined the show. Things should go well if the sound guy isn't too drunk. ... Will probably play it safe and stick with some good hillbilly music."
Such an antagonistic attitude could detract from Kozelek's rich body of work. But I like the fact that the guy singing the mordant, depressing, yet life-affirming song I drowned myself in the day my friend died possesses a twisted sense of humor. As Mark Richardson, editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, wrote last year in a long-form essay for the Pitchfork Review, "Listening to Benji, I felt something rare: that the album was written for me, or – odd as it sounds – like I wrote it myself. It was just that close." Later, Richardson added, "Songs about death are really songs about love, because without love, death has no significance."
Without beautifully grave songs like Kozelek's to remind us of our everyday mortality – and the surge of nostalgia we feel when confronted by it – we can't properly mourn those who leave us too soon. I can't say for sure what Mark Kozelek would think of that sentiment. But when I listen to Benji, I get the feeling he'd understand.