At what point does sincerity become experimental?
I’m always a bit suspicious whenever someone tells me that an album has “changed” their life. More often than not, the exact opposite is true. No matter how good, the album in question hasn’t changed a thing at all, but merely affirmed some deeply ingrained, more pleasing vision of the listener’s identity… No, if music is going to change your life, it’s more likely to happen through an album that is disagreeable or even slightly disappointing, the one you really don’t want to play again.
I was still in high school back when I first read that review. I guess that would have been almost three years ago at this point, two years before I started writing for TMT myself. I was just starting to get into music at the time, but I still remember that specific passage leaving an impression on me. That was back when music still had the capacity to surprise me unequivocally, back when I was too inexperienced to know the tropes and the scenes, and every gesture felt new and surprising and genuine. It felt like every album had the capacity to change my life.
And yet, with each passing year — as I come to find the independence of “independent music” more and more suspect, and as even a lot of “experimental music” start to sound more like fashion than experiment — Ed’s point seems to ring truer and truer. At what point do music and music criticism stop pushing the uncomfortable boundaries of what is possible and instead become a vehicle of self-validation? At what point does an album become just another mirror turned toward a fawning Narcissus? Where is the music that still has the capacity to change us?
It’s fitting that, after all this time, that passage should come back to mind while listening to Benji, perhaps the single most bewildering, uncomfortable, and affecting album I’ve listened to in recent memory. To put it in Tiny Mix Tapes terms: Benji, Mark Kozelek’s sixth album as Sun Kil Moon, is as abrasive as Pharmakon, as hauntingly emotive as Dean Blunt, and as disorienting as Oneohtrix Point Never. And if those three comparisons come across as utterly ridiculous, don’t worry. They should.
It’s no great secret that Tiny Mix Tapes has made a point of advocating music at the fringes. Hence, rather than a traditional Editor’s Choice or Best New Music section, our EUREKA! award is given to albums not on the basis of some intrinsic notion of quality, but rather based on their capacity to challenge the limits of music and representation. These albums, like most great works of contemporary art, tend to approach their subject matter at oblique angles. They say things without talking about them, paint them without showing them. They delight in the process of perpetual abstraction. The viewer is given only a fleeting glimpse of the reality behind the work, and it is up to us to retrace the lines for ourselves. We are left to tether the work to our own reality, rather than to an external reality forced upon our imaginations.
But lately I’ve begun to wonder: what happens when abstraction stops being the exception and instead becomes the default? What happens when the art we consume becomes distanced further and further from the real? Perhaps at a certain point, this distance too becomes a sort of default — an unfordable chasm separating us from reality. Ultimately, just as irony has come to define the distance between what we say and what we mean, perhaps abstraction has set the distance between what we sense and what is really there.
Benji collapses both these distances. It is one of the least abstract, least ironic, most straightforward albums I have ever heard. The album’s 11 vignettes — at a certain point I hesitate to even call them “songs” — come across as short stories ripped from the pages of Kozelek’s diary. They are rendered in the simplest of terms, often so blatantly and artlessly that you can’t help but cringe. There isn’t a shred of subtext on the whole album; almost every track can be summed up in its title. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “I Love My Dad” are about exactly what you’d expect. “Carissa,” “Jim Wise,” and “Micheline” are character sketches of their titular figures, each presumably a real character from Kozelek’s life. “Pray For Newtown” is, astonishingly enough, a straight-faced elegy for the victims of mass shootings. “Ben’s My Friend” is, perhaps most bizarrely, about Kozelek’s friendship with Ben Gibbard. Yes, that Ben Gibbard. And as for the album title…
The whole production would be grotesquely comical if it didn’t feel so unflinchingly, unapologetically sincere. And here’s the thing. Benji doesn’t resonate in spite of its awkwardness, but wholly because of it. Where so many artists would coat their lyrics in a thick buffer of nonchalance and ennui, Kozelek makes absolutely no pretension of playing it cool. “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” Kozelek’s ode to his 75-year-old mother, is a clumsily heartfelt love song. “Dogs” is one of the most uncomfortably honest account of male sexual frustration and insecurity since a lonely Rivers Cuomo wrote Pinkerton and confessed to masturbating to a Japanese teenager’s fan letter. (That “Dogs” is immediately followed by “Pray For Newtown” might be one of the most perplexing and psychoanalytically revealing metonymies ever committed to CD, but that’s another issue altogether.) Even the banality of a song like “Carissa” — a seven-minute meditation on the meaning of death — gives way to an immaculately naive clarity: “Carissa was 35/ You don’t just raise two kids and take out your trash and die.”
There will no doubt be more than a few listeners who go through Benji and decide that it is a terrible album. Indeed, every second of this album invites mockery. And if you’re so inclined, you’ll find a million reasons to hate it. At the risk of casting the first stone, there are times when I’m embarrassed how this album makes me feel. And at those moments, I want to stop listening. I want to laugh it off. But when a full-grown man tells how much he loves his mother and asks you to pray for the kids who died in Newtown, I think you have to ask yourself: are you laughing it off because you’re somehow above that sort of wide-eyed naiveté? Or are you laughing it off to distract yourself from the terrifying realization that you no longer feel anything?
So, when you listen Benji, I challenge you to consider our working definition of the EUREKA! section:
Some musical ruptures are so penetrating, so incisive we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and test the boundaries of what exactly discerns ‘music’ from ‘noise,’ others complement or continue anachronistic traditions that have provided new forms and ways of listening. We consider the section a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.
What does it say that, in 2014, one of the most provocative, boundary-pushing, and perhaps life-changing albums of the year might very well be an acoustic folk album that says exactly what it means?