When music is created, then pressed and or burned, it doesn’t disappear. Thanks to the internet, even records that go out of print live on. What does this mean? It means by the gift of logic, as a medium, music cannot get worse, as with each passing year there is more of it.
Now, of course, not all music that’s recorded then released is of a vintage, in fact most of it isn’t. And now, because there’s so much of it, past and present, a lot of it doesn’t reach the mainstream’s consciousness, and a fair majority of it never gets any form of significant commercial exposure. While that may seem like a negative it does present a positive, in the shape of a challenge to us music fans with discerning palates. This, in a way, is the new formula for word of mouth that helps the cream to rise. In a sea of blogs, music review websites, obscure indie labels and Soundcloud, the process of weeding out can be random and daunting. However, ultimately it can be enjoyable, particularly if you stumble on something great that you probably wouldn’t have discovered had you not undertaken the task of looking.
Certain people, on the basis of a body of work, transcend this process, and any new material gains immediate attention and consideration. Mark Kozelek is one such person.
There was little doubt that his latest release “Benji” would be good. There were only two questions that remained; how good would it be relative to his previous efforts, and what kind of record would it be?
Kozelek’s music is congenitally melancholic. Kozelek established this expectation with his most popular incarnate the Red House Painters, not necessarily thematically, but certainly compositionally and atmospherically. Take any of his best songs from this period; ‘Mother’, with its slow pace counterpointed by sudden cord changes, and a crescendo of abrasive guitars at the end. The sprawling intro of ‘Katy Song’ followed by lots of dramatic feedback, or ‘Japanese to English’ where heavy percussion physically conveys the sodden sadness of Kozelek’s narrative of the growing distance between two people. So those who were familiar with Kozelek’s work had their expectations primed for how they thought “Benji” was likely to sound.
However, “Benji” offers an inversion to that presupposition as an eclectic set of tones house a thematically narrow work focusing on that ultimate human weakness, uncertainty. Kozelek spends much of the album on that most uncertain of uncertainties, how we comprehend mortality, specifically what it is and how it affects us.
Massacres, famous deaths and those of the not so famous are quoted by Kozelek throughout as the means of exploration, they are examples of how subconsciously, or consciously, death informs our choices in life and as such how we live. Death on its own isn’t a particularly interesting subject, as it’s inevitable. What isn’t inevitable are its after effects, they’re the variable. And where there is variation nuance thrives. “Benji” is at its best when Kozelek vacillates between public and personal perception effortlessly, intertwining them, as he analyses the aftermath of public events from the sphere of his personal experience.
This is the case on ‘Jim Wise’ which I found to be a strange and macabre effort on first listen, with its unrelentingly playful lullaby-esque jingle being conjoined with Jim Wise’s failed suicide, and the subject of euthanasia, and the debate of its legality that inevitability follows.
For most of “Benji” Kozelek operates from the personal realm, but here he borrows the experiences of Jim Wise’s predicament to foment a narration of the futility, stupidity and immorality of sending a physically decaying and likely depressed old man to prison for ‘mercy killing’ his dying wife.
Kozelek took a risk here. Because ‘Jim Wise’ deviates from the overall tenor of the album, albeit only slightly, he was surely aware that it became easier for those who object to euthanasia, for whatever reason, to accuse him of a cheap form of tactless tourism, and of seeking a favourable scenario to fit a pre-existing opinion.
I’d argue that Kozelek’s use of a second hand personal experience goes well beyond any narrow biases. It allows him to subtly question the logic of euthanasia’s illegality by offering a painfully real context that isn’t his own. He observes Jim Wise’s now meagre circumstances after his failed suicide; his house arrest, discussing his knee replacement, and a layabout son who’s possibly depressed, and Wise’s clear attempts to avoid discussing his impending sentencing. As such Jim Wise becomes the ultimate example of how the criminalising of euthanasia has become a corrosive element to a family that’s struggling to cope with the readjustment that exists in the aftermath of the death of a family member, albeit heightened through extreme and odd circumstances.
All of it encourages the obvious question, would Jim Wise have tried to commit suicide had it been legal? That he’s now facing prison, and is under house arrest means he is perpetually caged, and is faced with his wife’s memory ‘she loved the garden, and its budding rose bush’ – which Kozelek repeats numerously, almost like a mantra to drive home the point – yet is no longer attempting to commit suicide, suggests not.
That Wise talks lovingly of his wife suggests that his decision to help her die was easy, but that his own suicide cannot have been an easy one. The scope of the law, and its lack of compassion to his circumstances, essentially entrapped him into prioritising ending the physical suffering of his wife over his own well being, and that in the immediate aftermath of the act, it was the best outcome for him. The irony is, Jim Wise becomes the ultimate example, that that through illegality, euthanasia becomes an act of complete selflessness, and not a selfish one to relieve the uncertainty of the living.
This song isn’t one of the better ones on the album, but it struck a cord with me as my mum died last year of terminal cancer. She was clearly in discomfort right at the end and I and everyone else felt helpless, especially as we knew that in other more civilised countries a more favourable solution existed and would be accessible. So Jim Wise’s dilemma of weighing up the consequences in such a scenario made complete sense to me.
‘Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes’ is one of the best things Kozelek has written in his career. He uses overdubbing – almost doubling his own voice at times – and a crackling abrasive tone in his rambling delivery, to create a sense of dread as he lays out the insidious obsession with acts of violence and that they have become emblematic of the average American psyche and are perpetuated by it.
The arc of Richard Ramirez’s life, his acts of murder, and then his death becomes a mirror of the passing of time and the changes that have occurred in Kozelek’s perception from childhood to adulthood.
Firstly, Kozelek considers the cumulative effect, retrospectively, of a youth punctuated by the memory of violent events, be it Ramirez’s killing spree during the eighties, ‘And think about we were kids scared of taps on the window/What’s under the bed and what’s under the pillow’, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, the Khomeini hostage crisis and that the ‘Jim Jones massacre got in our heads’.
Youth, hypocritically, by adults it should be noted, is supposed to represent a sense of hope and idealism for the future. Essentially children represent the notion that they can nurture a better version of themselves. Given the song’s context you’re entitled to glean that Kozelek is dwelling on this arrogance, and that it informs a lack of sophistication in analysing such events, which combined with a lack of awareness, ultimately helps foment simplistic attitudes that can be carried fourth by younger, more impressionable minds. The song switches suddenly, juxtaposing that thought, to the present as Kozelek observes aspects of urban decay and criminality upon returning to his old neighbourhood. It begs the question whether things have gotten worse, or if Kozelek’s perception has altered with cynicism, a by-product of aging and the intellectual emancipation that adulthood can bring.
Kozelek mentioning Elvis’s death within the list of memorable cultural episodes from his youth was interesting. I immediately associated it with Scott Walker’s use of Elvis to make a similar point, albeit Walker’s associated use of Elvis was far more obscure and esoteric. On ‘Jesse’, from “The Drift” Walker connected Elvis’s still born twin brother with 9/11, seeing both, one as physical, the other metaphorical, examples of the hubris of American mythology being shattered when the cultural icons that house it are viscerally destroyed.
Like Elvis, Richard Ramirez is, in a sense, a cultural icon. Elvis was seen, for much of his career as an aspirational, attractive and capable figure, a wishful icon of America’s best traits if you will, while Ramirez, a serial killer, represented the worst. Certainly Kozelek sees Ramirez in a more nuanced light as his death coincides with Kozelek’s burgeoning ennui at the various realities of his impending middle age, which he laments associatively through the death of James Gandalfini, a famous actor ‘The Soprano’s guy died at 51/That’s the same age as the guy/Who’s coming to play drums’. I think what Kozelek is driving at is any event that transcends a standard memory tends to become synonymous with the main preoccupation of that period of your life. Kozelek is preoccupied with aging as Ramirez died, meaning his death is metaphorical of the death of Kozelek’s youth, as Kozelek, among many, were preoccupied by the fear of Ramirez’s killing spree as kids, and that this has shaped who they are. However Kozelek seems to intimate, with the final verse, that he diverges from the masses, who focus on the memory of Ramirez’s killing spree, essentially making his death, and the passing of time that should invite perspective, meaningless in the face of his infamy, which lives on, preserved and enhanced as a piece of nostalgia;
And everybody remembers the paranoia
When he stalked the suburbs of Southern California
And everybody will remember where they were
When they finally caught the Night Stalker
And I remember just where I was
When Richard Ramirez died of natural causes
Even though ‘Pray For Newtown’ and ‘Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes’ don’t arrive sequentially on the album, on repeated listens you can’t help but connect the two. Here Kozelek is searching for answers as to why both serial killers and spree killers engender such morbid fascination. Kozelek says he felt the Newtown massacre ‘coming on’ ‘in his bones’, relating it to other spree killings from the past and recent present, as massacres have become passé in America, as an everyday occurrence, ‘everyday America, that’s all’.
You suspect that Kozelek knows that praying for the Newtown dead ‘I aint one to pray’, is a futile exercise, and that it also avoids analysing why these things happen. It’s an empathetic response that elides responsibility. Benign in its intention though it may be, praying fails to challenge the causation of such acts. Kozelek chooses to take responsibility and writes a return letter to a fan from Newtown, representing a physical embodiment of empathy rather than a speculative one, ‘December 25th and I was just laying down, and I picked up a pen and wrote a letter to the guy in Newtown’. At first it seems a bit morose to be thinking of a massacre on Christmas day, but that’s generally how we think of such things, as off kilter thoughts disparate from our present surroundings. Kozelek suggests we should do as he did, think about massacres at Christmas, usually a time of family and gluttony. There’s inferred irony here, families are destroyed by serial or spree killings, yet they’re consumed veraciously through blanket media coverage. A year and another Christmas passes, and nothing changes as another mass murder is inevitably just around the corner.
There are clues throughout the album, and in this song, that if Kozelek believes in anything it is truth and reconciliation and its processes. Like the act of praying, both are methods of coping with something we struggle to comprehend. I’m not sure if it’s the answer, but with “Benji” Kozelek is at least making an attempt to deconstruct life and human frailty on his own terms.
This is apparent on ‘Ben’s My Friend’, the final song on the album, which is constructed mostly of anecdotes of Kozelek’s present day life. A quicker tempo and the use of solemn brass, creates an uplifting template that belies its content. He sets the scene of an average day, of trying to write and finish an album, spending time with his girlfriend, of buying a pair of $350 lampshades and eating blue crab cakes in a place with ‘sports bar shit’ on the walls. All of these things are, well, things, distractions, which fail to distract him from his sense of disenchantment, and frustration at something that he can’t quite isolate or place.
It’s an appropriate end to the album, as it carries the message, that no matter how comfortable our lives are, how materialistic or vacuous we become, or how contented we think we are, we always, at some point, question who we are and how we got here. These are the only true thoughts we have. Everything else we think about is jaundiced by a bias or a motive of some kind, be it an ulterior one, and or an external, often insidious influence, or an emotion, be it fear, hope or dread.
Contemplation it’s called. On “Benji” Kozelek contemplates the many facets of life, mostly through the prism of his own, and the random nature of its totems, in a way in which we can all understand. And it’s the furthest thing from depressing.