The album doesn’t entirely rely on staid classics.
For all his recent squandering of any and all goodwill he may have accrued over the course of a nearly 30-year career, Mark Kozelek remains a talented, iconic vocalist of immense interpretive skill and emotional nuance. As he’s made quite clear, he has long since stopped giving a fuck what anyone thinks of him or his work, and has embarked on a journey of his own making that finds him following his muse wherever it may take him. From his deeply personal work on Benji under the Sun Kil Moon moniker to his well-publicized feuds with other performers – not to mention his own audience at times – Kozelek has seemingly developed something of a split personality in the public eye.
Still capable of striking a stirringly emotion chord with little more than a well-placed ache in his voice, he is equally capable of alienating an audience with his newly-adopted cantankerous persona. Despite this, those most ardently enamored of Kozelek’s aesthetic can be swayed back into favor with the mere sound of his voice. Regardless of his behavior, he’s one of his generation’s greatest vocal interpreters. From his drastic makeover of The Cars’ new wave hit “All Mixed Up” with Red House Painters on, Kozelek has made an art of taking apart pop, rock and even metal, getting to the emotional core of each and remaking it in his own inimitable image.
So effective is this approach that he’s has, at this point, essentially established a separate career as a peerless interpreter of popular song in the tradition of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and others. Rather than taking well-known material and simply rehashing it, Kozelek strips his material to its basest elements and rebuilds it. While at this stage in his career this has become largely formulaic, simply slowing tempo and removing all but the most essential instrumentation, it is still an influential approach that has virtually informed a genre of its own in the host of melancholic covers of pop songs permeating television and film.
Yet where his slowed down, acoustic takes on AC/DC, the Cars and even Modest Mouse felt like something of a revelation, the played-out standards on the appropriately titled Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites come across as tired and sloughed off. Given Kozelek’s now trademark sad bastard makeover, standards like “Moon River,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and, most cloyingly, “Send In The Clowns’” fail to impress, getting lost in Kozelek’s maudlin baritone. Having been done so many times before, these entries in the Great American Songbook require far more than a stripped down, slowed recitation to make an impact.
Fortunately, the album doesn’t entirely rely on these staid classics. At its best, Kozelek remains within the pop purvey of the latter half of the 20th century. It’s an era he knows well and can better imbue with an emotional sincerity that make songs like 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” or even Bob Seger’s “Main Street” resonate as never before. Essentially, this is the same approach he took in reworking Bon Scott-era AC/DC to great success. While he may have gone back to this well more often than necessary, he remains a compelling interpreter capable of reshaping the familiar into something wholly new and different.
So why does he feel the need to tack on his version of “O Holy Night,” a performance already issued on his equally sad bastard take on Christmas classics? Arriving near the end, it feels stylistically of a piece but grossly out of place thematically. But this just seems to be where he is at these days, content to continue doing whateverthefuck he wants regardless of how it may come across. And given the fact his Caldo Verde label has become something of a clearing house for his every artistic whim, we can expect much more to come.
Where before Kozelek relied solely on his own voice, here he invites equally iconoclastic artists to share the mic. Choices like Will Oldham and Rachel Goswell may make perfect sense thematically, both having spent a fair amount of time exploring similarly melancholic settings. But the presence of Mike Patton and Minnie Driver feel more like choices based in an esotericism that ultimately feels more incongruous than successful.
Album closer “Float On” becomes an almost elegiac hymn to optimism rather than the jagged, propulsive surprise hit anchored by Isaac Brock’s inimitable bark. Kozelek finally reassures us that he has lost none of his ability to take the work of others and turn it completely on its ear.
Regardless of his unfortunate public behavior, he remains an intriguing, iconic artist who follows his own idiosyncratic muse wherever it may lead. Whether or not there will be enough of an audience left to follow him remains to be seen.