Fact: Mark Kozelek has a lower approval rating than Congress, Ebola and ISIS. OK, maybe not Congress.
It hasn’t been easy to like the Sun Kil Moon singer lately. Even though Kozelek put out one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, the astonishing Benji, he’s dominated music blog headlines in the past several weeks for some mean-spirited onstage and offstage behavior.
Many in the music journalism community have tempered their affection for Kozelek’s music — Pitchfork’s Editor-in-Chief Mark Richardson summed it up well in last week’s review of Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols, when he described Sun Kil Moon’s Benji as “still very good, even if I’ve stopped bringing it up at parties.”
The PR-suicide campaign began in September when Kozelek told a noisy crowd of “f*cking hillbillies” at Hopscotch Music Festival in North Carolina to “shut the f*ck up.” Just a week later, he took shots at Philadelphia classic rock fetishists The War on Drugs for bleeding into his set from the next stage over at the Ottawa Folk Festival. It was more of the same militant Kozelek stage banter, including the now-famous sound-bites: “I hate that beer commercial sh*t” and “This next song is called ‘The War on Drugs Can Suck My F*cking D*ck.’”
A few weeks later, Kozelek took it a step further and released a song called “War on Drugs: Suck My C*ck,”and then invited Adam Granduciel, lead singer for The War on Drugs, to perform with him at one of his shows. Granduciel accepted the offer, but said in an interview with “Songs for Whoever” that Kozelek rescinded it immediately afterward. In typical call-and-response fashion, Kozelek released another dis track, called “Adam Granofsky Blues” — eschewing use of the singer’s stage name “Granduciel.” The latest song features Kozelek reciting Granofsky/Granduciel’s response as a spoken-word track and laughing after each line.
Anyone familiar with the Sun Kil Moon live show — or at least this year’s Live at Biko album — may not bat an eye at Kozelek’s recent behavior. Much like some of the best stand-up comedians, he constantly wages war with the audience, eviscerating people who talk during his set, shout things in between songs or stare at him oddly from the front row. While some might not appreciate this pushback at a music show, those attending a Sun Kil Moon gig should know by now that it’s par for the course.
But his war on The War on Drugs and the “singles” it’s spawned are more than a failed attempt at comedy. It’s a pathetic, sad and inexplicable verbal assault on a band that never set out to intentionally harm Kozelek. Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy labeled it as abusive language that’s reflective of curmudgeonly men in the music industry’s “dangerous patriarchal head mentality.” At least the feud even brought on some genuine humor this past weekend when El-P of Run the Jewels, who were performing on a stage next to Kozelek at Fun Fun Fun Fest, led the crowd in a playful anti-Sun Kil Moon chant.
The backlash is becoming slightly more lighthearted, but it still might be difficult to look beyond Kozelek as even more of a caricatured grump than before when we hear his music. Post Drugs-gate, how should we approach Benji? Ghosts of the Great Highway? Kozelek’s entire catalog with Red House Painters?
Since Kozelek writes so much of himself into his songs, it seems impossible to forget about his recent behavior when listening to them. But music is still a deeply personal experience for the artist and the listener — and that experience doesn’t have to be a shared one.
Benji is at times a painfully confessional record with specific references to deaths in Kozelek’s family, his playground fights and his “nagging prostate.” It’s oversharing at its finest — and sometimes most cringe-worthy — but as with any other narrative-based art, Benji can hold a mirror up to our own lives.
When Kozelek sings about withering away after his mother passes away, his acquaintance of a second cousin who burned to death and his grandma, I don’t think about any of those people very much — I think about my own mother, my own cousin who passed on too soon and my own late grandparents. Kozelek’s situations are specific, but he captures a universal psychology of loss.
So there’s no need to backpedal on admiration for art just because the artist made a sad fool of himself. “Annie Hall,” “Chinatown” and Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock” are still beloved pieces of pop culture, despite whatever unsavory things we know about Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Alec Baldwin.
If you loved Benji in February, “Duk Koo Kim” in 2003 or Ocean Beach in 1995, keep loving them. And hope that Kozelek shuts up.