Strip away their melancholy wrapping and the Sun Kil Moon frontman's festive covers are full of warmth and sincerity
And so this is Christmas, and what has Mark Kozelek done? If you’ve kept abreast of the 47-year old’s antics this year – he dismissed an audience in North Carolina as “fucking hillbillies” and started a beef with The War On Drugs by labelling the Philadelphia band “beer commercial lead-guitar shit” at a festival in Ottawa in September – you might be surprised to learn that it’s not writing a song about what The War On Drugs might like to do to him on the 12th day. Nor has he reinterpreted that other time-honoured Noël classic as ‘O Little Town of Fuckin’ Hillbillies’. The Sun Kil Moon frontman may revel in the role of indie-rock’s great white grinch, but as ‘Sings Christmas Carols’ proves, he’s no more immune to the spirit of the season than his furry green counterpart was.
From the moment it was announced late last year, the concept of a Mark Kozelek Christmas album made a wonderfully contrarian kind of sense: the former Red House Painters frontman is one of the least festive figures imaginable, which in the grand tradition of Seuss and Dickens, makes him an ideal candidate. He acknowledges as much on the opening track, ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ (from the much-loved animated TV special ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’) where his recording engineer plays the role of Linus to Kozelek’s cheerless Charlie Brown. “Mark, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem” he laments. “Of all the Mark Kozeleks in the world, you are the Mark Kozelek-iest”.
Of all the leftfield ideas he’s come up with, however, ‘Sings Christmas Carols’ isn’t even close to being the Mark Kozelek-iest. He has a history with this sort of thing: 2001’s ‘What’s Next To The Moon’ was a collection of acoustic AC/DC covers, while Modest Mouse received a similar treatment on 2005’s ‘Tiny Cities’. Despite the fact that he didn’t actually write any of the songs, both of those records could be described as singularly Kozelek-ian. So it is with this one.
Yes, on first listen, ‘…Sings Christmas Carols’ sounds wilfully depressing: Kozelek’s dolorous baritone and spartan arrangements (you’ll find no sleigh bells here) make sure of that much. Yet, as with this year’s Sun Kil Moon album ‘Benji’, there’s warmth and sincerity beneath the despair. It would be easy to take a sardonic tack with this material, but to his credit, he never does. There’s no shortage of solemnly fingerpicked renditions of ‘Silent Night’ or ‘The First Noël’ out there, but coming from a perennial Scrooge like Kozelek, they seem dusted with more seasonal magic than the (many, many) others.
The standout tracks, however, are those that aren’t really Christmas carols at all. As well as ‘Christmas Time Is Here’, he puts his stamp on The Pretenders’ ‘2000 Miles’ – itself something of an overlooked gem – with memorable results. Better still is the closing piano-bar slouch of ‘The Christmas Song’, which evokes the feeling of that last, lonely drink of the night, when everyone has gone to bed and thoughts of the Boxing Day clean-up consume your exhausted mind. It’s an album better suited to quiet contemplation than photocopying your arse at the office party, but it’s one you’ll find yourself looking forward to digging out again and again. For now though, turn the lights down low, put some ice in your drink and have yourself a very merry fuckin’ Mark Kozelek-y Christmas.
Director: Mark Kozelek
Record label: Caldo Verde
Release date: 01 Nov, 2014