Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Is Cool?

kozelek

Mark Kozelek. (Photo: mrmatt/Flickr)

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

• February 14, 2014 • 10:00 AM

Mark Kozelek. (Photo: mrmatt/Flickr)

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 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.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

More From Kevin Lincoln

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.