For someone with such a painfully distinctive style and voice, Mark Kozelek’s songwriting sure has evolved a lot over the years since the early days of Red House Painters. In recent years the slowcore founding father’s transformation has been especially evident, and nowhere is that truer than “Ben’s My Friend,” the closing track from the forthcoming Sun Kil Moon album Benji. Kozelek has always leaned toward the plainspoken as a lyricist — my favorite song of his, 2003’s “Glenn Tipton,” is basically a series of detail-laden short stories from a serial killer’s point of view — but in recent years he’s taken a turn for the hyperliteral and autobiographical, with songs such as “Sunshine In Chicago” functioning as play-by-play travelogues. That’s truer than ever on “Ben’s My Friend.” As with the other songs we’ve heard from Benji, especially “Richard Ramirez Died Today Of Natural Causes,” Kozelek’s adopted the syllable-cramming cadence of his trusted muse Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, but this time out Kozelek’s traded Brock’s quirky, effects-laden guitar squeals for saxophone-infused midtempo lounge music out of Destroyer’s Kaputt. It exists in an entirely different sonic universe from the stone-faced melodrama of Red House Painters’ “Have You Forgotten” or even the spare acoustic plucking of Sun Kil Moon’s Modest Mouse covers album. There are a lot of ways to sing a sad song with an acoustic guitar!
Kozelek’s latest sonic realm is the background for a story about Kozelek going to see the Postal Service. He feels old amongst a crowd of 8,000 twentysomethings, and tinges of jealousy spring up when he thinks back to when he first met Ben Gibbard at a festival in Spain in 2000, when his band was outdrawing Gibbard’s. Hearing a line like “The other night, I saw the Postal Service/ Ben’s my friend, but getting there was the worst” in a song rather than an interview is the indie rock equivalent of Curb Your Enthusiasm, an inside look at the relational strains and tensions in a world of a most of us rarely glimpse. Somehow, though, I’d be willing to wager the frustrated and wistful feelings Kozelek bares here are a lot more true-to-life than a fictionalized Larry David farce. Stream this strange and beautiful song below.
Benji is out 2/4 via Caldo Verde.