If there is ever an indie rock remake of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Mark Kozelek would get the title role hands down (Annie Clark as Cindy Lou Who, anyone?). This was a banner year for Kozelek in both music making and in showcasing his cactus-like cuddliness, capitalizing on two different instances of offhand misanthropy. While both coverage of his calling a crowd “fucking hillbillies” — and the t-shirt it bred — and his ongoing bullying of War on Drugs mocked the ludicrousness of Internet flame wars, Kozelek’s methods were potentially alienating to some.
Kozelek had announced plans for an album of Christmas carols long before his curmudgeonliness had reached the all time high where it now resides, so Sings Christmas Carols doesn’t mean Kozelek has had an epiphany about kindness and his heart has suddenly grown three sizes. Rather, Sings Christmas Carols is a somber and reflective spin on a holiday that, much like Internet feuds, has been blown largely out of proportion.
Kozelek’s 2014 Sun Kil Moon release, Benji, is an album of brilliant songwriting that is also so confessionally brutal that I don’t know if I could handle listening to it more than a few times a year, and I speak as someone who thinks it is one of the year’s greatest achievements. Christmas songs, however, are never so bare. The most one can hope for in terms of self-reflection and rawness is what Kozelek gives us here: ascetic renditions of “O Christmas Tree”, “Little Town of Bethlehem”, and “Silent Night”.
Big Surprise: Kozelek steers clear of more upbeat numbers, such as “Deck the Halls”. Still, hearing Kozelek’s utterly sincere rendition of “The Christmas Song”, with its genial observations of “folks dressed up like Eskimos” and “tiny tots with their eyes all aglow” startles in the best way possible. Such sentiments issuing from the mouth of anyone but Kozelek has a high-risk factor for schmaltz, but here they feel tender and earnest. You can almost picture Kozelek playing piano in a fuzzy Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sweater.
Jokes aside, Sings Christmas Carols pulls off an amazing feat, in that Kozelek makes these oft-covered songs entirely his own, picking his classical guitar beautifully for the Pretenders’ “2,000 Miles” and delivering “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in his signature phrasing. Opener “Christmas Time Is Here”, from A Charlie Brown Christmas, even has a wry — and likely to be widely quoted — stab at humor, with a friend of Kozelek’s remarking, “Of all the Mark Kozelek’s in the world, you’re the Mark Kozelekiest” in its spoken word passage. The album’s greatest miracle may just be Kozelek’s spin on Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”. Kozelek takes this bombastic, dated Christmas cash-in and imbues it with a no frills elegance that endears. These may be some of the most downbeat versions of Christmas songs since Arab Strap’s cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, but they are also austere in a way that cuts to the heart of the season.
Although Sings Christmas Carols is a tasteful release that does good on reminding fans both old and new of what an outstanding year it has been for Kozelek musically, this is not the sort of Christmas carol collection that aims to get one “in the mood” for the holidays, or at least not in the way that commercial releases of holiday songs strive for. Like Benji, this is an album that operates in places and moods we may not always feel comfortable venturing into or putting on, but works wonders for personal and spiritual growth. For those ready to consider the the real meaning of Christmas rather than the crass commercial aspect, this is the holiday record for you. For those who aren’t, picturing Kozelek terrorizing Whoville may be the best you can do right now.