Mark Kozalek weaves yet more magic out of sadness and chaos in another career highlight
“So it’s not/loaded stadiums or ball parks”
So began the recorded career of Mark Kozalek. The song is called 24, and it’s about as jaded and pessimistic a beginning as you could imagine, a weary lament about feeling old and not having attained any of your childhood dreams. As the title suggests it was written with his 24th birthday coming up – Kozalek turned 47 this year. Now it’s 48 that ‘breathes in [his] face’ and pounds on his door, ‘like a mad whore.’ In the intervening years, whilst he never did quite play to loaded stadiums, it’s fair to say his pessimism was a little misplaced: his music has spawned a fair old number of critically acclaimed albums, worldwide acclaim, a record label, a role in Almost Famous and, in his words, “what you might call a charmed life.” Towards the end of Benji, on the song I watched the film the song remains the same, Mark tells us he’s off to see his friend, the man who signed him way back when and allowed him to be so pessimistic on that début album, to say thank you. There are moments like this scattered throughout Benji that give it the feeling of things coming around full circle. Thankfully it doesn’t feel quite like an ending or a curtain call – but it’s hard not to feel like a phase or an era is coming to a close.
When looking at a record in the context of a long and brilliant career like Kozalek’s it’s always tempting to try and impose some kind of structure on things. I’ve always thought that one of the most brilliant and tragic things about humanity is it’s desire to impose narratives onto chaos and coincidences. It’s one of our most endearing traits, but it can leave us vulnerable when faced with things that just don’t make any sense and can’t be fit into the story we’re trying to shape things into. From that bleak start onwards Kozalek has always struck me as a man more susceptible to this urge than most, his writing propelled by a need to make sense of, and discover some kind of deeper truth to, well, everything. It can be a self-destructive urge, to dwell and ruminate on life’s details (some of those Red House Painters songs were introspective to the point of psychic masochism), but it’s one which carried him through several more Red House Painters albums and onwards. And it’s in this same mode of thinking we find him in on Benji’s opening track Carissa. The coincidence that triggers this would, in fairness, have anyone scratching their heads and searching for answers – the titular Carissa, Mark’s second cousin, died in a freak explosion from an aerosol can left in some burning rubbish. A few years earlier Mark’s Uncle, Carissa’s grandfather, died in exactly the same way. It’s not the most typical way to die – having two family members pass in that manner is bound to give anyone cause to question whether there is some deeper meaning or purpose to such a coincidence. Over the delicate, plaintive finger picked acoustic guitar we’ve come to expect of Kozalek in recent years he struggles to make sense how and why such a bizarre happenstance could come to be, and why this young mother’s life was cut short in such cruel circumstances. “Carissa was 35/you don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.” He mentally plays detective, idly asking questions over precisely how it happened, wondering whose job it was to take out the trash, who put the aerosol there etc. Inevitably there are no real answers to be found in such a senseless tragedy, so instead he heads home ‘to give and get some hugs’ and ends up pondering whether he was meant to ‘give her life poetry’ whilst ‘singing her name across every sea.’ It’s this empathy accompanied with an enduring belief in the power of song that has kept Kozelek’s work, under whichever name it’s released, endearing after all these years.
Not that it’s been plain sailing of late. The way he rambles through all these details is something that’s a recent development – a lyric sheet in 2014 is several times as long as anything from his Red House days. It’s a curious trajectory – most lyric writers like to say more with less as they get older; Kozalek has gone in the opposite direction. To accommodate his new found wordiness his vocals have transformed into a half talking half singing style which on the last Sun Kil Moon record Among the Leaves often didn’t seem to suit him. Perhaps it has something to do with the subject matter on that album – the stream of consciousness that led us through the days of an ageing, jaded touring singer songwriter was probably never destined to be pretty or edifying. Whereas it’s normally younger singer songwriters who are often more prone to over sharing Kozalek has, again, gone in the opposite direction and got more open as he’s gone along (and he was a fairly open book to begin with). The naked honesty of Among the Leaves frankly made him come across as something of a grumpy old asshole, seemingly sick of touring and the endless string of women that seemed to come with it. That’s the trouble with writing in a stream of consciousness style – it’s success or failure as a piece of entertainment and/or art will all depend on where your consciousness happens to be at. On Benji he still gives us things warts and all, whether embarrassing or just plain uncool (how many song writers write songs entirely about how much they love their mum?) but he does it from that place of sober reflectiveness that tends to come when dealing with loss. He sounds more vulnerable here, so even when admitting to being an asshole he’s a lot easier to like. Sure, it still occasionally leads to songs that are just plain cringe-worthy – Dogs, a runthrough of Kozalek’s early sexual experiences, is as about appealing as it sounds. But the honesty makes for plenty to relate to. The rest of the gory details he imparts- his prostate and his bad back, his knack for breaking girl’s hearts, the shame he feels at not being able to spend time with his grandmother as she deteriorated at the end of her life – all make him seem a lot more like a flawed human being than just the grouchy old dude with a guitar and not much to say from Among the Leaves.
An album so plain spoken and honest about such personal details can be quite a tricky listen, feeling a little too voyeuristic and confessional at times. Compared to earlier works, which worked harder to strike a tone musically rather than lyrically, it is perhaps an album I’m less likely to return often. It doesn’t sound as pleasing in the background, and the wordiness drags you in and demands your attention. And once it has it Benji isn’t shy on pulling you through the wringer – as you’d expect from an album inspired by tragedy it’s not always the happiest listen. Spoiler alert: lots of people die, and not many of them happily. It doesn’t help that he’s quite a morbid soul to begin with – for instance Pray for Newtown, a response from a letter from a fan from Newtown following the tragic shooting that happened there, uses massacres as milestones, ways of measuring the passing years. You get the feeling that for Kozalek tragedy is life’s defining characteristic tragedies and it’s most noteworthy events. He tries to end on a positive note: he pleads with us to remember the people and the families who lost their lives on that day – a further testament to his belief in the potential power of songcraft. But the way he lists the massacres reminds us that these things keep happening – and as he lists all the places and times in life you should perhaps spare the children of Newtown a thought it becomes obvious what he asks is impossible. Life, stubbornly, goes on.
Thankfully it’s not all that bleak. It’s a nostalgic record, which imbues the sadness with some badly needed warmth. He reminisces about old friends, girlfriends and relatives, continuing to try and add poetry and meaning to the lives of the cast of his childhood. It can vague at times, sometimes devolving into rambling incoherence. But the songs about his parents feel like definitive statements: they’ve both been mentioned a lot recently (watching movies with his old man in Desertshore’s Hey you bastards I’m still here or selling an heirloom of his mother’s for weed money on 1936 from his collaboration with the Album Leaf) but these feel like underlining numbers. Their very titles – I can’t live without my mother’s love and I love my dad are the kinds of things that when contemplating mortality you’re forced to realise you need to say while you still have a chance. The way he deals with them individually is interesting – he discusses the life lessons his dad taught him accompanied with a backing band and mini-gospel choir on I Love You Dad, whereas I can’t live without my mother’s love is just Kozalek, his guitar and the sinking emotion that you feel in the pit of your stomach when you realise someone you love dearly will one day pass. The former is a pitch for the head, the latter for the heart – perhaps understandable when his relationship with his father seems a lot more complicated, with the spectre of parental abuse looming in the background. But like everyone he describes and whose tales he tells on Benji he tries to tell his dad’s story with empathy and understanding.
And that really is the defining characteristic that separates Benji from the rest of his work. He’s never been short of empathy but the past few years have seen the focus of his songs move a little away from himself. I think he’s still a solipsist at heart – him and his thoughts are still at the heart of his songs, only he spends a lot more time considering the sorrows and trials of others as well as his own. And it’s this that redeems his new found disdain for brevity and his latter day plainspoken, talky singing style – it gives him room to tell multiple stories, to not skimp on the details, and whilst never quite finding answers they at least cast a light on the questions and the questioner that wasn’t there before. And then there’s that belief that in the power of song, that he can give poetry and meaning to the lives of the people he sings about.
Still retaining a belief in the power of song after 25 years in the business is, in itself, a beautiful thing. And what’s more a song like Jim Wise vindicates it completely. Over a jaunty and perhaps slightly corny organ melody Kozalek sings about him and his father visiting their friend Jim Wise, detailing the minutia of their conversation and surroundings in that typical Kozalek way. Then the chorus delivers the sucker punch: Jim is a man who killed his wife in her hospital bed to end her suffering. He then turned the gun on himself. The gun jammed, refused to fire, and left him alive. The way it’s phrased is starkly tragic and yet it’s delivered in such a dispassionate sing song way it almost feels like a joke. My first reaction on hearing it was in fact to laugh. It was a bitter, hollowed out laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. Then came the tears. The description of this old man in poor health alone in a house, awaiting trial for a terrible act of kindness, wearing a tag on his ankle as if he could possibly run away even if he wanted to, is utterly devastating. Jim tells them that, “she loved the backyard garden and the budding rosebush.” And as they leave Kozalek remarks about how he pointed out, “the pretty cardinal perched on the empty birdbath.” It’s a loaded subject to start with, a tale that doesn’t require any embellishment of theatrics to be affecting. Which is perfect for Kozalek: instead he grounds it in the mundane, imparting such little details that round out the story and make the song so beautifully, magnificently sad. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could do a subject like this such justice. And it also shows that he knows when to revert back to brevity – it’s one of the albums shortest songs. It’s the mark of a master at work.
The real triumph of Benji is that somehow amidst all the sadness and loss Kozalek manages to find some sort of peace. On Truck Driver, an ode to his uncle and first victim of the exploding aerosol cans, he sings of being sat in his grandmas back garden and watching his cousin play guitar. He watched, entranced, and witnessed how everyone around found themselves similarly enraptured. He knows then that that’s what he wants to do with his life. And at the end of the song it’s him, at his Uncle’s wake, playing guitar in that same garden to the mourning crowd. Again, things come full circle. The album feels like a big stock take, a mental inventory of a life. And the narrative he spins from the chaos of that life ultimately seems to end with him feeling content. Ben is my friend, the album closer, is melodically something of an outlier when compared to everything that came before and sort of serves as a laid back state of the union. It finds Kozalek feeling old, struggling to relate to the younger crowd gathering to see The Postal Service, but with a hint of a competitive fire still burning in him. It ends with him in the studio, ‘singing about something or other‘ behind the microphone in the summer time. Given the topics he was singing about that’s about as relaxed and assured a way to describe things as an anxiety plagued melancholy junky possibly could. And despite all the tragedy, the death and the sadness of the preceding 10 tracks, we somehow manage to reach an ending that it’s as close to happy as you could hope for. Back on song I watched the film the song remains the same when he tells us of his plans to meet the man who signed him all those years ago he means to thank him, “For discovering my talent so early/For helping me along in this beautiful musical world I was meant to be in.” It may be a terribly cheesy line to use, but in the spirit of Benji’s heart-on-sleeve honesty I’d be remiss not to end by saying this: whilst listening to Benji, yet another highlight from a long and brilliant career, I’d quite like to thank him too.