LAST YEAR, PETER ROBBINS, the now grown-up child actor who voiced the heroically morose title character in the much-loved 1965 animation A Charlie Brown Christmas, was arrested for stalking his ex-girlfriend and her plastic surgeon. Sentenced to a year in jail, he was allowed to serve his time in a rehabilitation facility. It’s the sort of story that could have quite easily found a place on Benji, Sun Kil Moon’s last album, a record painfully committed to archiving all the dissipation and damage that accompanies adult life. It strikes the right kind of sad note, then, that Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols should begin with a rendition of Vince Guaraldi’s delicately frosted composition for the animation, Christmas Time Is Here, complete with morose dialogue between Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt. “I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel, I just don’t understand Christmas I guess,” says the singer. “I always end up feeling depressed.” “Mark,” comes the reply, “you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem… of all the Mark Kozeleks in the world, you’re the Mark Kozelek-iest.”
“Kozelek’s understanding of Christmas is in tune with his back catalogue. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the void before us nipping at your nose.”
It is this essential, irreducible quality of Kozelek-iness that makes the idea of this Christmas album initially striking. Yes, there have been versions of White Christmas and Little Drummer Boy in his past, but from his earliest days in Red House Painters he has never been a man who could easily be imagined in novelty reindeer antlers, decking his house with fairy lights and inviting all the neighbours over for mulled wine. His 2014 has been particularly low on jollity, too, starting with an album of full stops, Sun Kil Moon’s Benji.
A scythe has often been heard whistling through his songs, but Benji was a record with an unusually high body count including his cousin, his uncle, his grandmother, some friends, serial killer Richard Ramirez and the victims of the Newtown massacre just before Christmas 2012. As the months passed, there was a noticeably irascible live date – he caused a stir by calling a North Carolina audience “fucking hillbillies” – and a bewildering hostility towards The War On Drugs, which began when their set inadvertently bled into his at a festival and escalated when Kozelek released two cruel songs about them. Now he’s releasing – peace on Earth and goodwill to all men! – a Christmas album. It’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll from War On Drugs: Suck My Cock to The First Noel.
Kozelek’s understanding of Christmas is, however, in tune with his back catalogue. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the void before us nipping at your nose. You don’t need to be properly versed in all the doomy, myrrh-scented foreshadowing of the nativity to recognise Christmas’s inherent poignancy, the creeping knowledge you have measured out your life with mince pies. It’s the time when a lonely reflection can be endlessly beamed back in bright shop windows and tinsel, shut out from cheery Christmas tree huddles. (Or as Bill Callahan put it, “The orange glow of a stranger’s living room/Looks so much warmer than mine”.) Factor in the perfect opportunity the holiday presents for a good War On Drugs-style feud, and suddenly Kozelek is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
He is also, increasingly so, an eloquent teller of other people’s stories. His tales include that of his second cousin, killed when an aerosol can blew up (Benji’s Carissa) or the immigrant workers who helped rebuild his house (Gustavo, from 2013’s album with Jimmy Lavalle Perils From The Sea); it’s no wonder he should want to tap into the roots of the Greatest Story Ever Told.
His selection of songs is as largely traditional and simple as holly: Silent Night, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Cast in acoustic guitar and Kozelek’s solemn voice, they have a wintery starkness without being cold, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and O Come All Ye Faithful breathed out in clouds into a freezing December night. Sentiment is low – although inescapable with Away In A Manger – and modernity is kept at a distance. Greg Lake’s I Believe In Father Christmas is given a fierce folky intensity, while The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles lets Kozelek’s voice whirl like a snowflake in the darkness.
There’s also a bell-like take on Do You Hear What I Hear, a touching synthesis of child-like hope and adult wistfulness that supports the idea that this could be the best seasonal collection for melancholics since Low’s 1999 festive offering. Kozelek has form with obsessive cover versions: he was once fixated on AC/DC, while Sun Kil Moon’s Tiny Cities was an entire album of Modest Mouse songs. Red House Painters even covered The Star-Spangled Banner. In a 1996 interview, around the time his band released their take of Wings’ Silly Love Songs, Kozelek said: “People will tell me, ‘Why don’t you guys do a Nick Drake song?’ and I’m like, ‘Oooh, that’s really inventive. That’s really original.’ But doing something like Silly Love Songs actually is rewarding, because people don’t even recognise it when I do it my way. It totally feels like my song now.”
This album could then result from the arrogance of a man who wrote a song on 2012’s Among The Leaves called The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman Vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man; a confidence that he can send anything – even national anthems, even whole holidays – through his filter and it will emerge in his image. Whatever his motivation, however, the beautiful results make it clear that, unlike poor Charlie Brown, he does understand. The record’s final words come from the more obvious comforts of Mel Tormé’s The Christmas Song, suddenly lit up with candle-like piano – “Although it’s been said many times, many ways/Merry Christmas to you”. It sounds as if he means it. No tinsel, all feeling.
For more information www.markkozelek.com.