Written by: Paul Gleason
The more I listen to Mark Kozelek, the more I’m reminded of Brian Wilson.
Hear me out.
Both Kozelek and Wilson make records that create worlds – warm worlds, where introspection is safe, where emotion stands naked, and where you feel that you’ve come home to yourself, perhaps for the first time.
Think about it. The heartfelt tones and brutal honesty of Kozelek’s latest Sun Kil Moon record, Benji (which has already solidified its status as the best album of 2014), extends the similar introspective work that makes Wilson’s masterpiece, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, one of the most earnest, artistically satisfying, and courageously sad records ever made.
So is it really a surprise that Kozelek, like Wilson on The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album and his solo What I Really Want for Christmas, has the courage to release a Christmas album in an ironic and cynical age?
Is it really surprising that Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols is a masterpiece of sincere, soul-baring music, which transcends its classification as a “Seasonal Record” and exposes its creator’s soul in all its nakedness?
The opening song on Christmas Carols provides the key to understanding the record. The acoustic guitar arpeggios of “Christmas Time Is Here” immediately place you in the realm of Benji, and Kozelek plays his instrument like he’s playing his heart. His guitar and his voice are his Beach Boys and Wrecking Crew all rolled into one.
Kozelek’s singing is simply lovely. But he undermines its loveliness and the song’s lyrics by including a spoken-word passage that describes his unhappiness and his inability “to understand Christmas.” The record, then, becomes Kozelek’s attempt to understand Christmas – and, remembering his claim on Benji, his longing to escape his “melancholy.”
But “understanding” is a rational process, and finding one’s way out of the despair of melancholy and to a belief in the spirit of Christmas – despite all its clichés and corporate corruption – is a matter of the heart. This kind of belief is the territory of the irrational.
So Christmas Carols – and this is the crux of the record – is dialogic in nature. It mirrors Kozelek’s inner battle to reconcile the irrational and the rational. But “reconcile” is the wrong word – because the record shows that reconciliation is yet another rational process. The record proclaims loudly and strongly that we just need to learn that our authentic selves are battlefields, on which nothing is ever finally resolved.
“Do You Hear What I Hear” shows Kozelek’s effort to create a beautiful version of a Christmas standard. His guitar playing is as touching as always, and he multi-tracks his vocals to create wondrous harmonies. Here, he seems to “understand” Christmas – or he tries to.
But Kozelek quickly undermines this understanding with an equally lovely but despondent tune more in the realm of Benji: Chrissie Hynde’s “2,000 Miles.” This song of lost love puts Kozelek back in his melancholy mood.
Then the record switches gears, as if Kozelek wants to abandon despondency. He seems to grow in confidence with each of the 11 cuts that follow – and Christmas Carols becomes more spiritual as the record progresses.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Kozelek preaches on the record. What he does instead is offer a vision of his inner process – his attempt to feel the emotion behind the Christ story in the way in which it can impact us existentially but not dogmatically.
And, for Kozelek, this impact is not only in the aesthetic of spectacular music but – more importantly – it’s also indicative of the beauty of the inner peace of introspection.
Just like on “Do You Hear What I Here,” Kozelek creates multiple layers of harmonies on “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Silent Night,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” with the effect of having the many voices of Kozelek come together in the peace of a unified but varied self.
“Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The First Noel,” and, indeed, “Silent Night” demonstrate a different kind of unification – the one between Kozelek’s inimitable guitar playing and his voice. The tranquil emotions behind these performances are the obverse of the tumultuous renditions of the Benji tracks, showing his breadth as an artist and his self-acceptance of a single self that, to quote Whitman, “contains multitudes.”
Walt Whitman and Brian Wilson – Mark Kozelek is in their league. As Christmas Carols attests, he, like Whitman and Wilson, knows that peace – paradoxically – resides in the acceptance of the self’s multitudinous existence. His passionate art, from Red House Painters to Sun Kil Moon to his solo records, gives earnest comfort in an ironic and cool time. We’re lucky to have it.
And we’re lucky that Kozelek attempted to “understand Christmas.”