Reflections After Benji

Of all the meaningless music-related trivia that I know, the following nugget has elicited the most reactions of outright disbelief: Did you know that Mark Kozelek was in Almost Famous? (Bonus: He shows up in Vanilla Sky for about 5 seconds, also.)

Yes, that is the very Mark Kozelek of which I speak in the above clip kicking off the “Tiny Dancer” sing-along as Stillwater’s bass guitarist in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 2000 film, but who (you may be wondering) is Mark Kozelek?

Mark Kozelek is a singer/songwriter whose band Red House Painters made a handful of exceptional records in the 1990s. My first exposure to the group came when a friend played me the song “Have You Forgotten”, from Songs For A Blue Guitar I was fourteen years old and whether it was adolescent hormones, my most recent romantic snubbing, or the song itself, I sat there pretending I was scratching at some elusive itch on my cheek instead of wiping away tears.  I wasn’t mature enough to understand the song from my own experiences, yet the lyrics are such that any emotional newbie can understand the pain living inside of the words: “I can’t let you be/’Cause your beauty won’t allow me”, “Shut out what they say/’Cause your friends are fucked up anyway/And when they come around/Somehow feel up and you feel down”, “Have you forgotten how to love yourself?”
There is also the fact that Kozelek has one of the most emotionally affecting voices of anyone making music today, a baritone that communicates regret and loss in a style that underscores these intrinsic emotions by letting the final words of many lines just kind of trail off.  Because of how significant a player Kozelek was to the band I never thought of Red House Painters as band but as his band (my apologies, other Painters).
And by the time RHP called it quits and Kozelek started putting out music as a solo artist I was still keeping up with him, seeing him play whenever he came through town, picking up the records as they were released – you know, “fan” stuff. When he formed a new band, Sun Kil Moon, I was thrilled, full of the hope of records that I would cherish as much as those Red House Painters albums.

[[  UPDATE: Pitchfork has recently posted a glossary to accompany Benji, to help clarify some of Kozelek’s myriad lyrics.  ]]

Sun Kil Moon’s first album, Ghosts of the Great Highway, turned out to be an epic Americana masterpiece à la Red House Painters best work.  Kozelek’s voice still plaintive but strong, the troubadour of the lonely.  And as great as that album is, here we are eleven years later  and it looks like Kozelek has finally released his magnum opus in Sun Kil Moon’s sixth album, Benji.  While Kozelek has always had a distinct songwriting style, the songs on Benji are notable for being the most stripped down of any songs that Sun Kil Moon has made, as far as both instrumentation and production go.  All for the better this time around as Kozelek has stuck upon a new form of sincerity: reflecting of all the love, loss, and loneliness that he sees around him as an adult who clearly doesn’t have all the answers but is invited us into his process as he works them out.  Take these lyrics from album opener “Carissa”: Carissa was 35/You don’t just raise two kids, an’ take out your trash and die/She was my second cousin/I didn’t know her well at all/But it don’t mean that I wasn’t/Meant to find some poetry and make some make some sense/To find a deeper meaning/In the senseless tragedy/Oh Carissa, I’ll sing your name across every sea.

On Benji Kozelek achieves his goal “to find some deeper meaning” in the things he doesn’t understand, in the things he does, and sometimes he just stumbled upon it as he is trying to understand.  Quite literally each of these tracks has a life of its own and as Kozelek does on “Carissa” – ensuring that she would be remembered not only by him but by a bunch of people who would have never known she existed if it weren’t for this song – so me immortalizes many of the other people in his life through these songs, and we have a more complex picture of Mark Kozelek himself.  You would be hard-pressed to find more personal, sincere lyrics on any album this year (or any year, for that matter) and coupled with the precisely bare-bones instrumentation and you-are-there production Mark Kozelek and Sun Kil Moon have given the world an instant classic with Benji.

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