Somehow, this collaboration is perhaps Kozelek’s most accurate self-portrait.
While their musical styles do not seem to overlap, the pairing of Mark Kozelek and Justin Broadrick is entirely logical. Kozelek has steadily refined his half-spoken baritone and confessional lyrics into stark rawness, and his recent tendency to say the most obnoxious things and act wounded when criticized for them has begun to wrap his stream-of-consciousness style around corrosive self-pity. Meanwhile, Broadrick, as the mastermind of Godflesh, yoked pummeling industrial pop to young angst long before Trent Reznor bought his first leather whip. Working under his heavy but shimmering post-rock nom de plume Jesu, Broadrick offers Kozelek the chance to mix up his increasingly folksy, bare backing and place his work into a different context.
However, neither artist seems to adapt much to the other at first. Opening track “Good Morning My Love” merely sounds like a contemporary Sun Kil Moon track, all sidewinding lyrical asides and endlessly bridged observations, played simultaneously against the gentle but loud wash of a standard Jesu number. The reverbed distortion almost entirely blots out Kozelek’s mumbling delivery, and the repetitive, soaring riff doesn’t complicate Kozelek’s hushed baritone so much as completely ignore it. Break out a lyric sheet to realize you aren’t missing much, with Kozelek once again finding ways to lament becoming popular with Benji, setting up a straw man 19-year-old who says she cares about abstract concepts like “social justice” and “femininity” while the experienced, worldly Kozelek trumps her with concerns for tangibles like his friends, as if the two were exclusive. He also takes a potshot as his supposed hipster fans, with a reference to some geek’s vinyl fetish that comes off as stale and lazy.
The first third of the album generally follows the sonic format of the opener, too often crafting a murky mix that could be said to bring out the insoluble quality of Kozelek’s best and most complex lyrics. It is nonetheless frustrating for the frequent lapses into incomprehensibility that reduces songs to snatches of discernible dialogue – and the most self-justifying lines. Take “Last Night I Rocked the Room Like Elvis and Had Them Laughing Like Richard Pryor,” which boasts beautiful, quintessentially Kozelekian observations on the mundane, like his sister’s birthday and his work’s appearance in Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth. But the clearest line of the song is a swipe at Pitchfork for giving Universal Themes a 6.0. The last stretch of the song consists of a fan letter recitation, something resurrected near the end of the album. Both fan letters, but especially the Singaporean fan’s note read in this track, amusingly capture Kozelek’s many contradictions: they are touchingly honest, insightful, and more than a little defensive. In reading them, Kozelek betrays warm-hearted humility and egotism in benign balance, arguably better than some of his caustic writing of late.
Just when it seems that the listener will have to wallow in Kozelek’s hit list, the album dramatically improves. “Fragile” strips down to acoustic guitars to clearly render Kozelek’s lyrics, which spiral into a lovely tribute for the late Yes bassist Chris Squire in the form of a reminiscence of listening to Yes with a childhood friend. Squire died of leukemia, as did the friend, linking them in the kind of haunting coincidence and cosmic cruelty that the singer captures so well. “Father’s Day” trades cascading guitars for spacious synth tones and gentle percussion, giving Kozelek’s voice room to breathe and finally adding a meaningful dimension to Kozelek’s drive-by despair and quiet rumination, giving full attention to such striking lines as “Called my dad, and I’m so happy/ That I can say/ That after years of struggle/ He’s one of my best friends.” It’s moments like these that make Kozelek so compelling and so hard to quit, and Broadrick coaxes out the ambivalence of these confessions, hard-won joy surrounded by ongoing conflict.
The album’s final stretch is as good and accessible as anything on Benji, despite the gargantuan length of the last three tracks. “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek and John Dillinger” has the kind of self-martyring title that makes one brace for the songwriter at his worst. Instead, a delicate, clean electric guitar curls around tour stories that Kozelek tells with such enthusiasm it’s as if he’s recalling in the moment every minute detail of picking tomatoes or following workouts with late-night pizza. It also ends with the other fan letter, a completely personal admission of what his music meant to a longtime fan who, when she got to see him live for the first time, brought her unborn child along for pre-natal exposure. If Kozelek read the first note with relish, he recites this one with quiet emotion, as if holding back tears to realize he matters. “Exodus,” meanwhile, circles around the death of Nick Cave’s son in an attempt to empathize with the unimaginable pain of losing a child, with only scattered electronic effects and a light piano pattern to underscore Kozelek’s raw concern for a colleague and hero.
“Beautiful You” closes the album with a 14 minute track, so long that at one point Kozelek even comments on how out of hand it’s getting. As if filibustering his own LP, Kozelek begins to read from diary entries, which matches with Broadrick’s ambient chiming to induce a sense of banality that can drag down the track but also makes for honest relaxation and reflection. As defensive as the album’s first four songs can be, tracks like these reveal the undercurrent of affection and gratitude for love, life, fans and art. Just as it threatens to make you abandon him forever, the record makes you as big an admirer as ever. Somehow, this collaboration is perhaps Kozelek’s most accurate self-portrait.