Mark Kozelek: Red House Painter, solo singer, Sun Kil Mooner and Almost Famous bass player. My introduction to his music came via his first incarnation as brooding singer/songwriter in Red House Painters. I’m not old enough to have been buying their music as it was released; in fact, I had never heard of the band until I came across an article in a music magazine that included one of their albums in a the most depressing albums ever list. Being a man, or boy as I was then, I love lists. There seems to be something about the imposing of order upon chaos that appeals to those of us with a cock and balls. I was also, and this perhaps has less to do with genitals, irresistibly drawn to anything – books, art, movies – that was considered depressing or dark. I don’t mean Slipknot and Nine Inch Nails, goths and torture porn movies and all that crap. No, I was interested in the bearing of the soul, so to speak, or the wailing at the stars; confessional art, I guess you might call it; the kind made by bruised hearts, or bruised egos, maybe.
So, anyway, I already knew and owned a bunch of the albums on the list, but the ones I didn’t I sought out immediately, or as quickly as money would allow. I remember returning home from the record shop with the cd [Red House Painters by Red House Painters], and scanning the song titles for evidence of severe emotional distress. I couldn’t find any, although I was pleased with the album cover, which is a kind of sepia photograph of a rollercoaster. Deep. When I slipped in the cd and played the album through a couple of times I generally found the songs to be as disappointing as the song titles. It wasn’t quite psychotic enough for my tastes at that time; I found the music often meandering, and the vocals toneless. Having said that, a few songs did stand out, like the sad and lovely Mistress, and those songs were enough to convince me, over the next couple of years, to buy one or two more of the group’s albums, which I listened to occasionally but which I never paid any great attention.
It wasn’t until I was slightly older, and I had moved away from my home town, that I went back to those records. Ironically I found them too intensely dour, in the main. I was a different person by this stage; I was twenty two and no longer angry and so deeply unhappy. I had spent four years at university, and one of my chief accomplishments was having grown up and matured. One song, however, caught my attention, a song that my younger self would probably have found slightly embarrassing had he taken any notice of it. The song is called Michael. As far as I can tell it is about a friend of the singer’s who he hadn’t seen for some time; that’s it, that’s as complex as it gets. Mark wonders where Michael is now, and sings:
I got a lead from your old triple ex-girlfriend, she said
“I heard he lost his mind again”
“Again?” I said
I didn’t know that you ever did
It’s ruminative, nostalgic, intensely sentimental. I don’t think those are emotions that would have made much sense to me as a kid. But as a young adult, living away from home, they sure did.
Do you remember our first subway ride?
Our first heavy metal haircuts?
Our last swim on the east coast?
And me with my ridiculous looking pierced nose?
I remember your warm smile in the sun
I found that despite having always hated my home town while I was there, having always resented my family and the people around me, I had come to feel a kind of nostalgia – the strange kind of nostalgia we sometimes feel for unpleasant things – for that period of my life, for my childhood and adolescence; I came to realise as I thought about those times and wondered what had happened to the kids, the neighbours, the teachers, I grew up around just how deeply sentimental I am myself. As I scanned the web and the racks in record stores in order to catch up with the releases I had missed in the intervening years I noticed how increasingly Kozelek’s music had adhered to that Michael template, culminating in Benji, his most recent, most beautiful, and backward-looking record.
I’ll say right away that there are about four or five songs on the album that I don’t care for at all, not because they are bad, although they are melodically uninspired, but simply because they seem like a waste of time in comparison to the six or seven other songs here, six or seven songs that, more than any written and released in the last couple of years, absolutely kill me. The first, Carissa, is my favourite. It appears to be about a girl, a distant relative, who died in house fire. It starts:
Oh, Carissa when I first saw you
You were a lovely child
And the last time I saw you
You were 15 and pregnant and running wild
I remember wondering could there be a light at the end of your tunnel
But I left Ohio then and had pretty much forgotten all about you
I guess you were there some years ago at a family funeral
But you were one of so many relatives I didn’t know which one was you
Yesterday morning I woke up to so many 330 area code calls
I called my mom back and she was in tears and asked had I spoke to my father
Carissa burned to death last night in a freak accident fire
In her yard in Brewster her daughter came home from a party and found her
I wrote in another review about how the older I get the more I come to realise how everyone is a little bit lost, how easy it is for people to slip through the cracks, to disappear, to fall off the end of the world. That kind of stuff is on my mind a lot. Most of the songs on Benji are about that, about how life, for some people, goes awry, about how you can get a phone call one day and find out that a friend or relative has gone under or passed on. These are the little domestic tragedies that don’t make the news, but which we all have to deal with, i guess, and that is one of the reasons I love the record. It isn’t concerned with girlfriends or politics or rock’n’roll cliches; it’s an adult album, a mature album, in the least boring, and most moving, way imaginable.
It is, too, very obviously an album about death and old age. Kozelek is 47 and, it seems, is starting to ponder his own mortality, and even panic about it a little bit. In one song, he sings:
I don’t like this getting older stuff
having to pee 50 times a day is bad enough
got a nagging prostate and I got a bad back
and when I fuck too much I feel like i’m gonna have a heart attack
woke up today saw the headlines
an airline crashed and 2 people died
and I’m at a barbecue, in Santa Fe
and everybody’s drunk and feeling pretty well
Nagging prostate? Yeah, you read that right. Every time I come to that part of the song I smile. It’s sad, sure, but Kozelek is bearing his fate with good humour. Refreshingly, he seems to be a songwriter who doesn’t care about appearances. I mean, how many would tell the world they have to piss 40 times a day, exaggeration or not, or that they get out of breath when they fuck too much? Benji is a brutally, touchingly, honest record, a record that does not flinch in the face of life’s shittiest aspects. It’s like a Raymond Carver short story collection, and I can’t pay it a much greater compliment than that.
From the pretty Micheline:
Micheline used to come to our house and knock on our door.
My dad would answer and say, “What do you want, girl?” and she’d say, “Can I take a bath with Mark?”
My dad would say, “My son ain’t here,” send her home and shut the door and we’d all laugh.
And Micheline would walk down the street glowing and smiling like she just got Paul McCartney’s autograph.
Her brain worked a little slower than the others; she wore thick-rimmed glasses.
She took a different bus to school than the other kids and was in different kind of classes.
I could quote lines all day. Kozelek brings a loving warmth to these stories, these reflections, that also reminded me of Proust’s Swann’s Way. As with that book I can clearly imagine or picture all these people; I feel, myself, a kind of tenderness towards them. I think that Mark’s aim was to, yeah, deal with this stuff himself, but more than anything to pay tribute.
Musically the album is stripped-back, and, well, unexciting or certainly familiar. There aren’t any new or unexpected sounds, there’s no experimentation or pushing of boundaries. Nearly all of the songs are Mark and an acoustic guitar, with a little embellishment. I don’t usually like that kind of thing, but his songwriting, and specifically his lyrics, make it fresh. His voice is lovely too, it’s rougher than it once was, it has aged, and that adds another layer of poignancy to the record.