Review Summary: And strangely I laughed
Death and life battle it out for every second of Benji’s lifespan. The sixty-two minutes of Benji are filled with stories of the life and times of those who have now perished or who lead singer and guitarist Mark Kozelek believes will soon perished. Kozelek chronicles the death of serial killer Richard Ramirez, the disabled girl who lived near him, his friend who died because he played the guitar in an awkward manners, his second-cousin Carissa and his Uncle who lit themselves on fire, the eventual death of his Mother and his Father and his fear of those deaths, the death of the kids who died in the tragic late 2012 massacre in Newtown, and the death of his innocence and his belief in true love. Kozelek is telling the life stories of everyone or every concept that is important to him or his fans and is telling us how those people or those concepts died. Death and life are constantly competing on this album. The most beautiful thing about this album though is how these competing concepts end up seamlessly merging and giving the listener feelings they might not have felt were possible before listening to this album.
Comparing the cover of the album Benji to the movie it was named after shows us the true nature of what this album is really about and how it is constantly somehow merging death and life together. The cover is a distorted view of a field, a field covered in swaying trees that appear to be near a falling death and grass so high that it could hide any body. Anyone could be buried in this field and easily forgotten, falling away from our collective consciousnesses like a leaf from that shaky and distorted tree. The cover allows us to believe in the unimportance of our death and the common fate that it presents to us: Kozelek’s truck driving uncle is going to die, Kozelek’s mother and father are going to die, and Richard Ramirez died just like the children in Newtown. They could all have been buried in this field and the people fifty miles away from this bleak nirvana would probably just continue stumbling into their existence. There’s an equality in death, it may be an egalitarian reward for our lives that are far from equal and far from fair. We could all be buried in that field and the world wouldn’t stop. People would continue to breathe.
So does the egalitarian nature of death, the fact that all of those people and concepts that Kozelek loved and valued so much could all be buried out in that field with almost no one but him noticing, take away from the actual greatness or wretchedness of these people while they were on earth? No, it doesn’t have to at all. Kozelek’s songwriting and instrumentation prove that that this isn’t the case.
As he has aged, Kozelek has become more of a stream-of-consciousness storyteller than a romantic poet. He would prefer to bitch about the food on his trip to London than to tell about how a girl named “Katy” made him feel like a shattered piece of glass. This stream of consciousness storytelling is a great benefit to him on this album because it allows him to clearly articulate his message of why knowing how someone died is key to knowing how they lived. Kozelek’s tells of how Richard Ramirez died in isolation, maybe he died in isolation because he killed everyone who might want to hold him and pray for him. Kozelek tells of his second cousin Carissa who died because of an accidental fire, but emphasizes that the children who she loved so much might have caused this fire. Kozelek tells of how the kids in Newtown died, their death at the hands of a crazed killer, and this emphasizes that they had so much good life left to give. Kozelek let’s on that his Dad’s lovely friend Jim Wise, the subject of the most beautiful and heartbreaking song on the album for me, will die an isolated death after mercy killing his wife, his reward for his merciful martyring of his wife is being reunited with her soon.
The instrumentation on this album also allows for the merging of death and life. The fast paced guitar on “Richard Ramirez…,” the kind of guitar riff that makes you feel the urgency of running away from someone who is trying to kill you and steal everything from you, makes you feel like Ramirez is running after you and reaffirms the terrible character of that this man displayed throughout his life. On “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love,” Kozelek’s almost muted guitar riff combines with some ghostly background vocals to emphasize the emptiness Kozelek will feel when his Mother’s passes away and why she is deserving of every bit of his eventual sadness. The almost poppy nature of “I Love My Dad,” allows us to view Kozelek’s Dad as a fun and flawed man who brought great joy to almost everyone around him, including many workers at the Panera Bread. The instrumentation on this album let’s us feel both death and life around us at the same time: it makes us feel like Richard Ramirez is chasing us and hunting us down while informing us we are safe from his malice, it makes us feel the emptiness Kozelek will feel when his mother will die while informing us that we can still embrace our still alive and lovely Mom’s, and it makes us want to hang out with Mark’s father and “shoot the ***” with our own. Kozelek’s storytelling and instrumentation allow listeners to have an intimate relationship with the characters in his songs and makes listeners want to regain those kind of relationships with similar people in their own lives. Through his stories of death, Kozelek is reminding his listeners of the importance of life.
And I guess that is the best summarization of Benji that an average writer like me could possibly give: it reaffirms the importance of your life through the stories of the deaths of many people. Sometimes the sadness on this album is overwhelming and it is quite the exercise to listen to all of the tracks on this album consecutively at first. But Benji encourages repeated listens because there’s a new connection you can make to it on just about every listen, there’s some new feeling it gives you on just about every listen, and there’s some new life-affirming aspect of the album that you uncover on just about every listen. Kozelek gives life meaning through tales of death, which is unconventional, but rewarding in its originality. Once you discover what Kozelek is trying to do and connect what he is doing with your actual life, the feeling this album can give you is unlike something you have never felt before when you are listening to an album. It is a gentle heartbreak that your death is coming, but a happiness that you are still around to witness your life and the lives of those around you. There’s a moment in the perfect closing song, “Ben’s My Friend,” when Kozelek casually mentions “sports bar ***!” The hilarity of it all will make you feel like Kozelek felt when his Grandma died, the nervous tension inside of you will break, and suddenly you will laugh. It is the greatest feeling. Tears are combined with laughter. Death is coming, but you can still laugh. You can still enjoy yourself as much as the dog on the cover of the movie Benji while knowing you will be buried in a field that looks like the field on the album cover Benji.