Reviewed by Johan Palme on 8th December, 2015
One of the marvellous things about Christmas records is the way they keep up folk traditions. I don’t necessarily mean that they’re museal pieces, created to preserve the sounds of yore. Quite the opposite: like older folk music, Christmas records constantly reuses – and reinvents – the same songs, playing them again and again, each musician putting their mark on the interpretation in the process. Is there any other context where songs dating as far back as the 16th century and beyond are so regularly performed, by regular people in such a variety of regular settings, as Christmas music?
Folk purists would say that the mediated nature of these songs, recorded and sold, have robbed them of their original meaning, rendered them dead things, stuck on paper and groove. But quite to the contrary, the process still continues. New songs are added to the repertoire that’s repeatedly performed, incorporated into older styles, reused by new generations.
One of the truly wonderful things about indie guitarist Mark Kozelek’s album Sings Christmas Carols is the way all music is treated essentially the same. From the renaissance “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” to the 1980s “2000 Miles” (originally by The Pretenders), all music is pulled through the same filter, Mark Kozelek’s unique style unifying them in one. That’s exactly the same process which any old folk musician would use, picking up songs here and there and bringing them into their repertoire. In Mark Kozelek’s world, all of these songs, even the upbeat major-key ones, are tinged with his own brand of world-weary sadness and longing. Suddenly, the spear in 19th century carol “What Child Is This?” and the veil of tears in the cover of Greg Lake’s “I Believe In Father Christmas” get imbued with additional gravitas. The album may be another reinvention, but one where deeper meaning permeates every note.