Part 13 of a 20 part rundown of my favourite tracks of last year
Even Mark Kozalek’s biggest fans, and probably the man himself, would admit he can be a bit of an arsehole. After Benji became his must successful album, both critical and commercially, in a long while he opted to celebrate by picking an unedifying media ruck with the War on Drugs culminating in the tragically titled The War On Drugs Can Suck My Dick. Whilst musically I’m always likely to be on Team Kozalek it was all a bit depressing. It came across as the immature response of a grouchy old man.
Which is also how he came across on Benji’s immediate predecessor, the tetchy, trying Among the Leaves, in which he introduced us to a new speak-singing style by moaning his way through an albums worth of weary travelling musician gripes in first person. Benji gave his new style a focus – in reacting to grief and searching for answers all his faults, clumsy rhymes and relentless focus on himself made for a very human response to tragedy.
The record’s most emotional moment happens to be when he drops not just the first person and the ever present ‘I’ but also the guitar altogether. Over an electric piano he sings about the small details about his subject, the titular Jim Wise (really John Wise who was sentenced to 6 years in prison in 2013), and tells his story in the most succinct and matter of fact way possible in the chorus: “Jim Wise mercy killed his wife at her bedside/then he put the gun to his head and it jammed and he didn’t die.” It’s so straight forward it almost comes across as the blackest of humor, an incredibly misjudged punchline. But Kozalek realises that this story needs no commentary, it doesn’t need the interjection of his thoughts and feelings – it doesn’t even need him to get angry at the injustice. It speaks for itself. He paints the portrait of an ordinary old man who happened to have a bracelet around his ankle and couldn’t leave the house. The only time Kozalek inserts himself into the story it’s to spot a bright red cardinal sitting on an empty bird bath in the garden once lovingly tended by Jim’s wife.
Kozalek asks a lot of big questions on Benji – how could his second cousin and his uncle die in similar freak aerosol fires? How is it just that serial killer Richard Ramirez died at a ripe old age of natural causes? Why is it that mass shootings have become an accepted part of American life? The question he doesn’t ask the is how a man who euthanized his wife out of love can be treated like a cold blooded murderer. Maybe it’s afraid of the answer. Or maybe it’s enough to just tell the story and let the sadness and sense of justice to seep in naturally. He saves his most beautiful melody of the record to tell the story of a self evident travesty of justice. He may be an arsehole sometimes but Jim Wise was a well timed reminder of his deep well of empathy and ability to capture so much with such simple, plaintive words and a sad little tune.