This article contains graphic language, as well as descriptions of sexual assault.
On August 13th, Pitchfork released an article detailing allegations of sexual misconduct against Mark Kozelek, an indie folk mainstay whose records with Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon helped codify the genre we know as slowcore. Three different women describe their encounters with Kozelek, who exposed himself, forced women to touch him, and pressured a nineteen-year-old woman into sex that she later described as “not really consensual”. In all three encounters, Kozelek comes across as entitled and manipulative, guilting and coercing women into doing what he wanted. Reading the article, I was disgusted, unnerved, and depressed.
However, I was not shocked, a sentiment that friends of mine echoed when I messaged them about the situation. “Not surprised tbh,” one said; “It was only a matter of time,” said another. This wasn’t an “open secret” situation, as with Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, but rather something less formal. To put it bluntly, there was just a vibe you got from Kozelek, and his recent output played a large part in that. In fact, the same sense of entitlement and misogyny that Kozelek displayed in the allegations was there in music that earned critical hosannas for its warts-and-all honesty.
As such, it’s worth looking back on Mark Kozelek’s recent output, and to ask ourselves a few questions while we do so. What was he telling us? What kind of man did he appear to be? Was he ever really honest?
Mark Kozelek has always mined his personal life for material, but 2014’s Benji signified a new, intensely autobiographical direction for the singer-songwriter. Benji was long, musically plain, and lyrically matter-of-fact, resembling extended diary entries more than music. Kozelek sings about whatever’s on his mind: the sudden death of a second cousin, the legacy of an infamous serial killer, his thoughts on Led Zeppelin’s concert film The Song Remains the Same.
Kozelek did away with the metaphors and lyrical devices of his work with Red House Painters; on Benji, when he sings about standing in line at Panera, it signifies nothing more than his desire for a decent sandwich. Critics adored it, and it seemed to represent the beginning of a late-career renaissance for the indie stalwart and supporting player in Almost Famous.
But even on Benji, there were signs that this hyper-personal approach had its limits. There are points where Kozelek comes across as less reflective and more self-obsessed, a middle-aged white guy who assumes as a matter of course that people care what he has to say about the Sandy Hook shooting. And while the autobiographical details certainly help us understand Kozelek better, there’s a fine line between autobiography and oversharing.
The album’s nadir is “Dogs”, an ugly display of exhibitionism where Mark Kozelek describes his formative sexual experiences. He refers to each woman by name (their real ones, as with every other person he mentions on Benji) and goes into detail about what, exactly, they did. He talks about his first handjob (the title comes from the Pink Floyd song playing in the background), the first time he “went down” on someone (two someones at the same time, according to Kozelek, in a particularly noxious humblebrag), and his “first fuck” (“she slid down between my legs, and oh my god, she could suck”). Songwriters can, of course, use their real life sexual experiences as material, but there’s no self-awareness to “Dogs”: it’s exploitative, misogynistic, and gross, and Kozelek doesn’t even seem to realize it.
In Pitchfork’s article about the allegations against Kozelek, they say, somewhat diplomatically, that “after Benji, Kozelek seemed determined to squander his newfound goodwill”. That’s certainly one way to describe Kozelek’s behavior in the years following his late-career breakthrough, although “cantankerous self-immolation” might be more apt.
He picked a fight with the indie rock band The War on Drugs after their music bled into his set at a festival, resulting in a diss track called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock”. In that same song, he laments the “fucking hillbillies” at his concerts and describes a female music critic as a “spoiled bitch, rich kid blogger brat”. Kozelek clearly thought he was being funny, but it was received as what it was: a petty, rambling diatribe from a grumpy old man convinced that his every passing thought was solid gold. It’s perhaps the most spectacular self-own in the past decade of indie music.
Meanwhile, Kozelek continued to pump out music at a rapid pace. He collaborated with the metalgaze band Jesu, released an album of Christmas carols, and made five solo Sun Kil Moon albums in as many years (the fifth, Welcome to Sparks, Nevada, is set to be released in early September). At this point, diminishing returns had started to settle in, and critics grew less and less enthusiastic about each coming album.
If Benji had a tendency to gaze at its own navel, these albums were exercises in full-blown narcissism: dry, quotidian recollections of phone conversations and hotel room encounters, petty gripes about incompetent stage hands and annoying fans, and endless rumination on favorite topics such as boxing and the inevitability of death. Perhaps he was aiming for a celebration of the ordinary; instead, it came off as someone who believes the world revolves around him and exists only to deliver epiphany after epiphany.
“Soap for Joyful Hands”, the penultimate track on 2018’s This Is My Dinner, embodies the worst excesses of late-period Kozelek. Over thirteen minutes of dry guitar strumming, Kozelek rambles about a cancelled show in Madrid, the annoyance of wet socks, and, like, how glad he is to be alive, y’know, man?
He recounts a conversation with a shallow, pretentious woman in a Portuguese hotel room (because most women in Kozelek’s songs are shallow and pretentious), where he berates her at length for asking about his “hobbies and passions besides music”. Kozelek, you see, takes his hobbies and passions and turns them into music, because he’s Just That Awesome. “Nobody can catch the poetry in washing socks with hand soap at hotels like I can,” he sings, in a line so pretentious and lacking self-awareness that it reads like self-parody.
Sarah Catherine Golden, one of Kozelek’s accusers, claims that the hotel room encounter in “Soap for Joyful Hands” was based on her own encounter with Kozelek, where he forced her hand towards his penis. It’s eerie listening back on the song and hearing just how quickly and easily Kozelek edited out the inconvenient parts, how he paints a woman he forced himself upon as just another stupid girl who doesn’t get it. It makes you wonder what else he neglected to tell us.
The point of recounting the past six years of Kozelek’s career is to put these allegations in context, and to demonstrate the nature of his “honesty”. In a sense, Mark Kozelek was honest. He was honest about surface-level things, like his love of boxing and his belief in gun control, but he was also honest in expressing his narcissism, his sense of entitlement, and his contempt towards women. They’re all there on display, beaming with pride and waiting for us to gawk and marvel at his selfless, egoless bravery. And, for a time, we did.
But there was nothing honest about it. If Mark Kozelek was truly honest, he would have acknowledged the ugly parts of his personality. He would have interrogated himself about the way he writes women in his songs. He would have asked himself why, exactly, he felt the need to brag about “getting more pussy than all the guys from Mew” on “Copenhagen“, why he expected us to care about his erectile dysfunction, and why he thought following that up with “is that too much information?” is enough to justify its existence in the song.
Mark Kozelek was not honest, not on Benji and not on anything he released afterwards. Instead, he selectively overshared. He rambled endlessly about Mike Tyson or David Cassidy to give the impression that he told us every stray thought that came to mind, to give the impression that he had nothing to hide. At the same time, he flattered and celebrated himself at every turn, congratulating himself for being such a charming, gifted, sensitive soul (and such a ladykiller, too!) He erased his own act of sexual assault and turned that evening into another monstrous monument to his own ego–all to the applause of his still-loyal fanbase. For the sake of his victims, I hope we’ll all know better going forward.