Philip Seymour Hoffman died on Groundhog Day, and no doubt the circus of hyperbolic grief and sententious moralizing that followed his death will repeat itself a million times over before the Earth is finally swallowed by the Sun. Luckily, Benji is here to offer a way out of a world that’s becoming one giant funeral procession, a cannibalistic liturgy where we use another human being’s corpse as fodder for our own egos and the ethical standards perceived to support them. Kozelek’s latest album is a storybook on death, on the death of loved ones, old acquaintances, strangers and celebrities, but rather than evaluate snuffed lives according to some questionable ideology or worldview, Mark Kozelek simply takes a descriptive approach across its 11 confidential songs, with the finished article somehow possessing more life than anyone could have reasonably expected.
But this is only a half-truth, because poignant eulogies like “Carissa,” “Truck Driver” and “Pray for Newtown” are less about death and more about the unpalatable realities death exposes to the cold light of day. With their intimate finger-picking, unglossed vernacular and delicate progressions, these songs recount past lives via almost exclusively mundane details, in the process casting doubt on the idea that we know those we love in any significant or profound sense. In “Carissa” the titular character is defined by a chorus of such isolated factoids as “Carissa was 35” and “She was my second cousin”, while “Truck Driver” informs us that “Kentucky Fried Chicken was served” at the funeral of Kozelek’s “respected” uncle. Even worse, “Carissa”‘s pained voice admits in the first verse, “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”, a confession of ignorance that underscores how loss, on top of everything else, is a bitter reminder of the gulf that separates the living as well as the dead.
And it’s this stark gap between longing for a connection with people and being unable to grasp more than surfaces that lends so much weight to Benji. Its unsettled paeans all search for a way of incorporating a roll-call of biographical atoms into some overarching narrative or arc, and all of them fail to maximum effect. Yet the deft neutrality of a “Micheline” or “Jim Wise” means that the listener is never bludgeoned over the head with this failure. Both of them are acoustic reminiscences without value judgements or condemnations, which is an achievement in itself given the sometimes distasteful nature of the figures they sketch, and both are democratic enough to leave the interpretation of their fine-grained pointillisms to anyone with a pathological need to spin contingent events into cautionary tales.
But the pointed tenderness of Benji doesn’t restrain itself to the unknowability and estrangement inherent to human relationships. With album epic “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same” Kozelek revolves the spotlight onto his own mortality, and finds himself unable to locate a unifying centre that would interlace his various selves. Lifted by flutterings of pregnant guitar he uses an inexplicable moment of schoolyard violence, his changing reactions to the Peter Grant and John Paul Jones dream scene in The Song Remains the Same, and the stubbornness of his “melancholy” in the face of growing success to float the idea that the moments of his own life haven’t fed into each other, haven’t engendered a coherent progression towards some culmination other than death. Yet what lends the piece its indelible power is not any despairing cynicism, but rather Kozelek’s seemingly unwavering conviction that, despite his life being little more than an aggregate of disconnected events, these events are still to be cherished in their own right, and accordingly the ten and a half minutes finish up with a beautifully heartrending coda that’s every bit the match for “Katy Song” or “24”.
Then the autobiography ends abruptly, mid-bar, like almost every other song on the album, as if highlighting both the abruptness of death and the absence of teleology, of a trajectory that would guide one instant safe and sound to its “logical” reward. And if there’s one thing that makes Benji such an affecting record, it’s the bare-bones candour Kozelek employs to treat life and death in the only way that doesn’t reduce them to garish advertisements for someone’s mores, prejudices or superstitions. This boldness is expressed in sonically uncluttered yet emotionally vast arrangements, lyrics that are surgical in their eye for detail, and an attitude that’s insightful precisely to the extent that it denies the possibility of insight. As Kozelek says himself in “The Song Remains the Same”, “I don’t know what happened or what anyone did”, and there could be no better encapsulation of what happens and what he does on arguably the strongest album attached to his name.