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How a 47-Year-Old's Album About His Own Mortality Became Cool

By turning a memoir into self-aware record, Mark Kozelek, a.k.a. Sun Kil Moon, has managed to captivate the early-2014 music world.
Mark Kozelek. (Photo: mrmatt/Flickr)

Mark Kozelek. (Photo: mrmatt/Flickr)

Mark Kozelek wasn’t exactly your typical “artist on the brink.” Primarily under the monikers of Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon, and his own name, Kozelek has been making quiet, fraught folk music for over two decades. He’s 47 years old, and one of his songs on 2012’s Among the Leaves was called “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. the Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man,” a title that hits a cringeworthy bullseye.

His new album, Benji, is both completely different and entirely in line with his earlier work. It is a collection of songs that have streamlined, unpretentious arrangements and hinge on Kozelek’s lyrics and voice. But building on a style he unveiled with 2008’s April and developed further on Among the Leaves and, more successfully, a collaboration with the band Desertshore from last year called Mark Kozelek and Desertshore, these songs are stories, so linear and frank in their telling that they end up sounding not dissimilar to prose. If you stripped away the music from Benji, you would have an audiobook of short stories that would still have artistic merit—possibly a surprising amount of artistic merit.

You could also imagine Kozelek going through these days, and you could borrow and assume the feelings he felt, even if you aren’t a 47-year-old man or someone who remembers Ramirez’s reign in Southern California.

Nobody in 2014 is clamoring for audiobooks of viscerally intimate short stories by middle-aged men set to minimalist instrumentation, except maybe if George Saunders decided to put a band together. And yet: Benji has established itself as the most talked about piece of music released so far in 2014, young as the year is. A crescendo of anticipation reached its apex with a rapturous review by Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen, who gave the album a 9.2—an incredibly high score for the site, considering its number-one album of 2013, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, received a 9.3—and closed his over-2,000-word piece with this: “When faced with an album that exposes so much of the beauty, truth, ugliness, humor, and grace inherent in simply existing in this world, the only response is to go out and live."

As of this writing, the review is the most-read on Pitchfork. On Metacritic, the review aggregator, it has an 85, qualified as “Universal Acclaim.” And Cohen tweeted out a telling observation on February 11: “I dunno what's weirder in 2014: ‘College Dropout’ at #19 on the iTunes album chart or ‘Benji’ at #20.” (Billboard only has chart information on its website for one of Kozelek’s albums as Sun Kil Moon, April, which spent two weeks in the Billboard 200 and peaked at #127.)

This wouldn’t be the first time that a Pitchfork endorsement boosted an album’s sales, if you wanted to attribute the success of Benji to that. But for those who follow music closely, the idea rings false: in the run-up to the album’s release, the songs “Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes” and “Ben’s My Friend” both landed online with major impact, captivating people (including me) who had never particularly cared about Mark Kozelek or his music prior to the last few months. Both tracks were stark as Raymond Carver stories and potent as Fiona Apple, and their honesty—one, “Richard Ramirez,” a sort of postmodernist poem about mortality whose catalyst is the death of the titular Nightstalker, on June 7, 2013; the other, “Ben’s My Friend,” a literal and linear anecdote about middle-aged malaise and masculine jealousy that involves crab cakes, lampshades, and a Postal Service concert—seemed both weirdly antique and avant-garde. You could date the writing of these songs, if you wanted. You could also imagine Kozelek going through these days, and you could borrow and assume the feelings he felt, even if you aren’t a 47-year-old man or someone who remembers Ramirez’s reign in Southern California.

BENJI RESONATES BECAUSE IT does something that very little contemporary music does: it fuses the nostalgia and love for literary observers like Carver, Joan Didion, and John Cheever with the extreme interpersonal nature of the Internet. Benji is thoroughly modern, diaristic, and off the cuff, while still feeling baroque; its elegance and depth isn’t betrayed by the fact that Kozelek could’ve tweeted half the things he says on the album. (They’d be good tweets.) Kozelek’s a storyteller at his core, and the stories he’s telling are the ones of minutiae and hidden significance, the kinds of stories we’ve come to not only expect but anticipate in 2014, just better. Benji feels lived-in and revelatory. And the more aggressively emotional of the songs, the ones like “I Love My Dad” and “Dogs” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” that should collapse under the weight of their own nakedness and sentimentality, have just the right amount of self-awareness to keep that from happening, like the best practitioners of what is quickly becoming the patron genre of American literature, memoir. 

With Benji, Kozelek, through a combination of artistry and what I imagine was both a coincidental and deliberate aligning with the artistic zeitgeist, has made a culturally relevant album that in other eras, and with lesser technique, could have been adult-alternative uncool. To all the other 47-year-old musicians out there: Could be a banner year if you get moving.