I’ve never traveled to the Midwest. I guess it could be said that I would love to take a chance to explore it in the future. I’ve only experienced it through music from 90’s emo bands like American Football or Cap’n Jazz. What has defined the area to me is their constant output of strained albums, trying to put a label on the area as a whole. From my out of body experience through these musicians, I feel like it could be somewhere to raise a small family, get a common job, and blend in with the crowd. Once the likes of Red House Painters showed up, they spun the entire area on it’s head, consistently releasing music that thematically contrasts the angsty vibes of the early emo bands, changing my opinion of the Midwest from, “Meh, it seems same old,” to, “You can’t pay me to visit”. Although lead member, Mark Kozelek, of Red House Painters never directly mentioned in his music how brutally depressing the area is, he used a large portion of symbolism to showcase the strong emotions he felt growing up in Ohio.
Now it could also be mentioned that everyone has a love-hate relationship with their hometown. It became quite apparent when he started his other group, Sun Kil Moon. The project is noticeably bleaker than before in different ways. His song-writing is a completely upfront, gruesome and raw image of what he needs to release from his system. Since the release of his newest album, Benji, I’ve struggled with connecting with his song-writing. It’s extreme, close to heart imagery is hard to put in relations with how I feel about the subject he discusses. Kozelek releases all his creative energy into a dark and depressing outlook on every possible subject he touches on.
Everyone of these 11 tracks are extended and stretched to the emotional barrier for the listener. “Truck Driver” is a track that tells the story of Kozelek’s redneck uncle, who died in a fire, and the funeral he sadly had to witness. It’s described perfectly through his first person view, “It was stormy that day / the sky was deep purple. /And babies were crying / Kentucky Fried Chicken was served. /And that’s how he would have wanted it I’m sure.” The raw portrayal of the life he had seems distant to me. Possible to some it makes sense, but I can’t find words to connect myself with the story. It’s what Kozelek intends for the most part.
The distance between instrumentation and listener is slim. What I mean is that Kozelek does such a great job of keeping the intimate moments intimate and the slightly less moments slightly less intimate. Every word spoken feels from heart, and every bang of the drum or strum of guitar, or even blow of a trumpet note feels placed for a reason. “Pray For Newton” keeps up with the relevance of Kozelek, expressing his utter disgust for the helpless reactions of Americans during the tragic shooting. It’s difficult to turn on the track, as I feel convicted sitting through his lyrics. The friendliest track, “Ben’s My Friend”, derives itself slightly from original Modest Mouse (The band actually was influenced by early Red House Painters), but a “Cowboy Dan” melody works itself in coincidentally. It’s ironic third-person writing throws off the bleak and saddening atmosphere that was found in the album, but as a closer it’s very original. Kozelek isn’t all sad faces, as he shows his genius and open-mindedness, using a horn section to add to the overall volume of the track.
It’s sad, hearing this album on a quiet Tuesday night, trying to find words to convey my opinion of such a subjective album. I wish I could say it’s simply a folk album, but then I would be lying. I’ve been haunted by these songs since I first heard it. I blew it off my first few listens, as I didn’t let the storytelling sink in. Once I sat into a routine with these tracks, I felt my heart shrivel and die. Kozelek knows how to kill and happiness found in the body with a gut-punching choice of words. He’s an incredible songwriter, probably one of the most talented in our generation. Every time I see a photo of him I feel like I need to give him a hug and tell him everything will be okay, but I’m worried he’d find a way to make the hug a sign of depression, forcing more despair into my lungs. Benji is overwhelming, hard to relate too, but it’s a story that should be heard.