When Mark Kozelek started acting particularly dickish in his faux-battle with The War On Drugs, it put an unnecessary tarnish on what has been a remarkably strong eighteen months or so for one of modern music’s most distinctive artists. For a little while thereafter, I struggled to play ‘Benji’, as all of its raw honesty and emotional heft seemed diluted by excessive, impulsive petulance. Everyone remembers the tiresome kid from school who always kept the joke going too long. And if you don’t, I’m afraid it was you. It’s pretty tricky to lecture people about artists wasting their time on Twitter and engaging with fans when you’re churning out limp, sour spoofs whilst trying to convince everyone you’re just being witty. There’s a fascinating interview with Kozelek in the current issue of Uncut where he is clearly trying too hard to prove he’s amiable. That aside, he comes across well and so, coupled with his magically straight Christmas album, it prompted the thaw and returned me to a fascinating record.
What strikes me most about ‘Benji’ is that it’s not a welcoming listen. I’m not simply saying that an album largely concerned with death isn’t a cheery prospect; that was said in more hyperbolic and asinine fashion elsewhere. The subject matter is rather less claustrophobic than the presentation of some of these songs. Whether it’s the spoken-sung ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’ where the vocal seems to be only a passing acquaintance of the music behind it or ‘Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes’ with its multiple, out-of-sync vocal parts in its latter stages, it’s occasionally hard to escape the sense that we might be The War On Drugs in all of this.
And yet, it’s fascinating. For the uninitiated, these are songs largely built around acoustic guitar and delivered via a weathered, withering voice that has never before sounded quite so human. There’s more than a little wry humour in these lyrics and the subject matter is, as I said, far easier to deal with than some would have you believe. Indeed, the moment this album first clicked with me was across the course of a Sunday afternoon in February spent painting the walls and ceiling of our kitchen. I was left to my own devices and had the iPod plugged into an emulsion-specked and aerial-deficient portable hi-fi. The remarkable storytelling was a genuinely moving accomplice for those few hours as it looped around. With any frustrations taken out on cutting in and fiddly spots above the cupboards, these songs got a free pass straight through and they hit deep. ‘Pray For Newtown’ has, rightly, attracted plenty of praise, navigating a catalogue of grim episodes involving gun violence through a very particular, occasionally cavalier, narrative voice. It was the moment during the first play through when I knew this record would endure, no matter how wilfully obtuse it may be.
When compiling this list, ‘Benji’ was the one album which bounced all over the place before finally residing in nineteenth place. I still don’t really know what I think of it, but I know that I want to keep spending time with it, and that’s got to be a good thing, right? Oh, and to give the aspiring King of Comedy his due, the musical joke in ‘I Love My Dad’ at Nels Cline‘s expense is actually pretty funny.