If you are a career music obsessive (as I am now forced to concede I am), there are likely to be a few artists whose work serves as virtual signposts throughout your life. I am happy to admit that The Smiths are my favourite band – I was just the right age, and the songs really spoke to me as I was growing up (in Timaru, and then in Christchurch).
But if I were to choose my favourite songwriter(s), it wouldn’t be Morrissey and Marr, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young, or Leonard Cohen or John Lennon. It wouldn’t be Gene Clark, or Paul Westerberg or Van Morrison – although I love all these people.
It would be the comparatively obscure Mark Kozelek, late of San Francisco’s Red House Painters, and currently operating under the Sun Kil Moon moniker. It’s not that I think he is necessarily better than any of those more celebrated songsmiths. It’s just that I have followed his career since the first RHP record (Down Colorful Hill, 1992), and always kept abreast of his musical output. His songs have soundtracked moments of deep sadness and profound happiness in my life, and everything in between. And, remarkably, at 47, I reckon he has just made one of the finest records of his career – made all the more remarkable by the fact that it follows on from the mildly underwhelming Among The Leaves.
It is entitled Benji, after the 1974 “dog’s eye view” film of the same name – as it turns out, this is probably the most frivolous thing about the record. Over the course of an hour, and 5000+ words, we encounter more death than I reckon anyone has ever crammed into the one album. In the opening track, we meet Carissa – Kozelek’s second cousin, mother of two, and dead at 35, after the arresting opening line; “Oh Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child, and the last time I saw you you were fifteen and pregnant and running wild”.
Turns out Carissa is one of two Kozelek relatives killed in the same freakish fashion – incinerated when burning trash in their yards by exploding aerosol cans – the other is Kozelek’s uncle – Carissa’s grandfather. “Goddamn,” he laments; “what were the odds?” It finds Kozelek heading back to his place of birth, Ohio, to attend the funeral, to “get a look at the landscape” and “to get a look at those I’m connected by blood, and see how it all may have shaped me”.
It is every bit as crushing as it is tender and gorgeous. There is a descending guitar line that follows each of the two choruses that has a grace note that I find so poignant that the first time I heard it, I burst into tears. Phenomenally, it is possibly not even the album’s bleakest moment.
There are love songs dedicated to each of his parents: I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love and I Love My Dad; their tones really couldn’t be any more different, the former is gentle and choked with grief as to how he will cope when his 75 year old mother dies, while the latter suggests Old Man Koz was a fairly ornery critter, and not backwards in using his fists (“but I forgive him for that”).
We meet Koz’s Dad’s buddy Jim Wise, who is on house arrest, having mercy-killed his wife and failed to take his own life when the gun jammed.
We have Prayer For Newtown, where Kozelek laments those slain in mass killings such as those in Oslo, and those of the “Batman Killer”, and those in Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary. We even have an oblique narrative meditating on aging and the randomness of life and death named after California’s “Night Stalker” serial killer and rapist, called Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes, which takes in Kozelek’s own physical ailments and the death of Sopranos lead actor James Gandolfini, and childhood fears – and his need to fix up his kitchen and hire a plumber. The intimacy and detail are breathtaking – shocking, almost.
There is one song that recounts the young Kozelek’s formative sexual encounters (actually, the less said about that, the better). There is another (Ben’s My Friend) that describes going to a Postal Service concert (“Ben” being Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard), and complaining of struggling to find a car park, and having a bad back, and feeling too uncomfortable and awkward and paunchy to go backstage for the post-gig after-party.
And there is Micheline – sweet, simple Micheline, who, upon being turned away from the Kozelek family’s door, skips on down the street “smiling and laughing, like she just got Paul McCartney’s autograph”, before a “neighbourhood thug moved in and started taking her welfare payments”, and Koz’s friend Brett, who had a funny way of playing barre chords, which ultimately led to him having an aneurysm and (you guessed it), dying (as does Koz’s Grandma, in the final verse).
Then there is the astonishing, ten and a half minute I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same, where Kozelek recalls seeing the Led Zeppelin concert film, and how it made him feel, which triggers the one time he hit another kid, and the regret he still feels for it (“I was never a schoolyard bully”), and the gratitude he feels to 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell for signing Red House Painters, and giving him a career.
The most incredible thing about this record is the way, with all this despair, it still feels life-affirming. It stands easily alongside the best of Kozelek’s past work (the towering second, self-titled RHP album, usually referred to as “Rollercoaster”, and the first Sun Kil Moon album, Ghosts Of The Great Highway) – if anything it even dwarfs them with its detail, its intimacy and its empathy. It feels like a very new and fresh take on the old “singer-songwriter” idiom.
I will be very surprised if a better record is released this year. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if his next record is better still…
by Jeremy Taylor