Killing Benji: Mark Kozelek and the Impact of a Creator’s Sins on Artistic Achievement

Note: This post contains strong language and references a graphic song title.

Under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek released his latest studio album, Benji, last February. The album was met with rapturous praise for its brutal, poignant, and raw depiction of loss. In his review for Pitchfork, Ian Cohen wrote:

There are 11 songs on Sun Kil Moon’s astonishing sixth LP Benji, and in nearly all of them, somebody dies. And that’s not including the ones where someone’s on the verge of death or seriously headed towards it. Toddlers die, teenagers die, adults die, and the elderly die. They die of natural causes and in freak accidents. People die alone and people die by the dozens—handicapped children, single parents, grandmothers, serial killers. They die out of mercy and die long before they’re due. Rednecks die as respected men and white collar kids die in disgrace. But more importantly, Mark Kozelek wants us to know that they all lived, loved, fought, fucked up, and often did the best they could, before he sets out to “find some poetry to make some sense of this and give some deeper meaning” to their tragedies. Turns out he doesn’t have to dig very far. Here, Kozelek does away with the metaphor and verbal obfuscation often used to distract an audience from their own joy, sadness, crippling failures, and small triumphs. If listeners find themselves unable to make it through Benji in one piece, it’s because Kozelek all but forces us to recognize how the most emotionally moving art can be mapped directly on to our own lives.

Benji is a monumental exercise in empathy. We empathize with and mourn for the people Kozelek so brilliantly sketches – among them, a single-mother nurse working the late shift killed in a freak accident, a friend who suffers through a debilitating injury while playing guitar, and the children and teachers murdered in the massacre at Newtown:

So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around,
Take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.
They went so young, who gave their lives
To make us stop and think and try to get it right…
Were so young, a cloud so dark over them
And they left home, gave their mom and dad a kiss and a hug.

So when your birthday comes and you’re feeling pretty good,
Baking cakes and opening gifts and stuffing your mouth with food,
Take a moment for the children who lost their lives.
Think of their families and how they mourn and cry.

We empathize with Kozelek’s personal acquaintances who “map directly to our own lives,” particularly when Kozelek sings about his mother and father:

My mother is 75
One day she won’t be here to hear me cry.
When the day comes for her to let go,
I’ll die off like a lemon tree in the snow.
When the day comes for her to leave,
I won’t have the courage to sort through her things.
With my sisters and all our memories,
I cannot bear all the pain it will bring.

And we empathize with Kozelek himself, who frames these insights and tributes as reflections in the course of his life on the road, often juxtaposed with memories of his youth and fears of his own mortality.

Kozelek’s lyrics are the most important component of Benji’s resonance, and his unique verse structure contributes to their incisiveness. The intensity and deeply personal subject matter of the album is paired with a lyrical delivery that often comes across as Kozelek simply reading from a diary. His couplets often run a couple of beats too long beyond traditional verse rhythms, giving each song a spontaneous, informal, and intimate feeling. At first, this comes across as a curious technique that clashes with the serious subject matter; by the end of the album, it’s mesmerizing, showing just how confessional and raw Kozelek’s stories can be.

Benji’s power comes from a source that’s greater than the sum of its parts. To appreciate Benji is to place one’s faith in Kozelek- to develop a bond of solidarity, to rage and mourn and quietly reflect alongside him. Kozelek never characterizes himself as a perfect man in any of the songs on Benji; far from it, in a couple of cases. But he does position himself as a searcher of truth through so much chaos and pain and heartache, a man trying to make some sense and create order and meaning in a world of hurt. Benji’s resonance ultimately lies in the shared conviction that the listener develops with Kozelek over how music is a vehicle to preserve and make meaning out of things that will fade away.

It’s been odd, then, to read the news surrounding Mark Kozelek over the past month. Instead of being included on “album of the year” lists, Kozelek’s name has been floating around the pop music scene because of a bizarre, pointless fight he picked with The War on Drugs, an alternative rock band based out of Philadelphia led by Adam Granduciel. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t make the news and shouldn’t rise above the level of “forgettable beef.” Instead, Kozelek’s words and actions have begun to make critics reconsider the merits of Benji and spurred criticism about the use of language of male violence.

Which raises the ever-recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal views and actions impact how the audience views his/her work?

* * *

To briefly summarize what happened: Kozelek and The War on Drugs were playing concurrent sets at the Ottawa Folk Festival earlier this fall. Noise from The War on Drugs’ concert was bleeding into Kozelek’s venue, prompting Kozelek to make crass remarks about how the band was playing “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” After that concert, Kozelek issued a “challenge” through the press for Granduciel to play with him onstage and continued to take shots at The War on Drugs. He then released a new seven-minute song for free called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” After Granduciel criticized Kozelek in an October interview, Kozelek then recorded another new song (“Adam Granofsky Blues”) that featured him reading Granduciel’s interview comments… and laughing at them.

This entire sequence of events probably sounds intensely stupid and pointless. And it is! For reasons unknown, Kozelek decided to press on and parlay this pathetic war of words into actual songs for all to hear, sonic tokens for a PR spat that never should have happened in the first place.

And guess what? There are a lot of problems with both “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” and “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Here’s Meredith Graves on how Kozelek is contributing to a culture that encourages male violence through language:

When Mark Kozelek chose to start and carry on a completely one-sided and extremely public feud with a band who genuinely did nothing wrong, who chose not to retaliate and even stated their position as fans of his work, who seem hurt and confused by Kozelek’s constant public attacks that persisted for weeks and how said attacks affected their year—that doesn’t seem like entertainment. It’s important to call it what it is: emotional abuse.

Which is why, in all likelihood, Kozelek chose to say “suck my cock” instead of “I think your band is bad.” “Suck my cock” is a command heard most often in two places: heterosexual porn, and schoolyard taunts between presumably straight boys. In no way does Mark Kozelek actually want his cock sucked by the members of the War on Drugs. What he wants is to make them feel violated, to make them feel submissive. “Suck my cock” is an order, not a request. “Suck my cock” is, when used by the wrong person, the language of physical force, the language of rape.

Graves notes in her piece that the initial press response to the song was actually quite positive, with some major outlets labeling it as “goofy” and a lighthearted “dis track.” But even if you disagree with Graves’ own analysis of the song and find the track to be a bit of harmless fun, it is difficult to think Kozelek is just “playing around” after listening to “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Hearing Kozelek laugh and laugh and laugh at Granduciel’s comments comes across as vicious, mean-spirited, and slightly sadistic, especially in light of the fact that Granduciel is only just recovering from intense anxiety and depression that made it difficult to even leave his apartment.

Maybe Kozelek is unaware of Granduciel’s depression. Regardless, the aggregate effort Kozelek has put into perpetuating this fight, especially given that Granduciel and his band did literally nothing to deserve this, paints a picture of him not as cranky and curmudgeonly, but cruel, pathetic, and deeply wrong.

* * *

The events of the past few weeks have made it seem as if there are two Mark Kozeleks. The first is the creator of Benji, an imperfect, admirable chronicler of things that will fade away; the second is a guy who thinks “all you rednecks, shut the fuck up” is a witty chorus lyric. The former is trying to testify to people working their way through pain; the latter is someone who actively perpetuates pain.

This has not gone unnoticed. As noted earlier, part of Benji’s allure was its authenticity, both in terms of the people Kozelek pays tribute to and the beauty of his work in doing so. The recent War on Drugs incidents have framed Kozelek in a decidedly more negative light and, as a consequence, are casting doubt on his conviction in Benji. More broadly, Kozelek’s senseless spat with Granduciel raises the recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal sins affect how viewers interpret his/her art? Should an artist’s character bear influence on how their work is consumed and remembered?

The general answer to this question is no. An artist’s indiscreet or harmful actions outside the context of their art should not be taken into consideration when weighing their art’s merit. That Roman Polanski molested a child and fled the United States should not affect how we view the thematic quality of his films, even though we might vehemently condemn his actions and consciously refuse to view his work to refrain from financially supporting him. Of course, there are exceptions, especially when malignant beliefs and perspectives affect the thematic core of a piece of art or body of work. The debate about how Heidegger’s philosophy should be judged given his support of Nazism in the 1930s immediately comes to mind.

Kozelek’s indiscretions are obviously far less weighty than extreme sexual impropriety or support for genocidal fascism. But his words and continual mocking engagement of Granduciel have already begun to detract from the successes of his earlier work as well as his new projects. Kozelek released an album of Christmas songs during the first week of November, and in his review for Pitchfork, Mark Richardson couldn’t help but discuss both this album and Benji in the context of the War on Drugs incidents:

Timing is everything. We’ve known for a while that Mark Kozelek was going to be releasing a Christmas album before the end of the year, but for much of that time Kozelek was riding a wave of goodwill following the release of (the still very good, even if I’ve stopped bringing it up at parties) Benji. Now Sings Christmas Carols finally comes out and it feels like an unwanted present from the obnoxious uncle you try and avoid at family gatherings… Kozelek is looking pretty sad, not to mention that he’s probably alienating new fans he may have acquired since Benji’s release. And now we’re supposed to allow him into our homes and into Mom and Dad’s 5xCD changer, slotting his CD next to Dolly Parton and Nat King Cole and A Charlie Brown Christmas? If nothing else, we can be thankful that Kozelek finished this album some time ago, so he didn’t alter his version of “The Christmas Song” to include the line “Although it’s been said, many times, many ways, War on Drugs can…

The musical composition of “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” also detracts from Benji’s positive reception. Benji’s music is sparse, plaintive, and repetitive; nearly every track is based on a simple lush melody that’s looped again and again, usually with minimal development, build, or change in form. It was a relatively low-fi approach, but the elegant simplicity of each song suggested a good amount of thought went into the planning of each piece. “War on Drugs” features almost identical production value- and Kozelek banged it out in a matter of days. Maybe there wasn’t actually that much work put into Benji, after all. Maybe that unique lyrical structure is just a lazy songwriting construct instead of a conscious attempt at intimacy.

Maybe, though, these allegations are unfair. Despite the many criticisms listed in this piece, Benji is still a gorgeous, haunting, often beautiful album. It may lack a certain authenticity that came with identifying with Kozelek through the course of the album, but even if all of his characters are fictitious and his personal struggles false, his lyrics and themes ring true. Perhaps his misdeeds may make us more hesitant to praise his work, but that doesn’t mean his work inherently lacks value and grace.

Yet there is something undeniably different when listening to Benji in light of all of Mark Kozelek’s recent adventures. Benji is no longer simply a moving testament to friends gone, family lost, strangers who deserve to be remembered. It stands now as a possible aberration created by a man who is one of the aggressors causing the pain Benji so poignantly tried to transfigure. No one is perfect, but the sheer pointlessness of Kozelek’s actions makes his decisions all the more bitter and confusing, hypocritical and tarnishing.

One of the songs on Benji is titled “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” A Stereogum reader posted the following lyrics from that song as commentary on Kozelek’s actions:

Though I kept to myself and for the most part was pretty coy
I once got baited and had to clock some undeserving boy
Out on the elementary school playground
I threw a punch that caught him off-guard and knocked him down.

And when I walked away the kids were cheering
And though I grinned, deep inside I was hurting
But not nearly as much as I’d hurt him
He stood up, his glasses broken and his face was red.

And I was never a schoolyard bully
It was only one incident and it has always eaten at me.

I was never the young schoolyard bully
And wherever you are, that poor kid, I’m so sorry.

He’s not sorry. And both Benji and innocent people are still hurting as a result.

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