The music of Mark Kozelek, whether made with his former band Red House Painters, under his own name, or as Sun Kil Moon, has been described many ways: dreamy, melancholic, and wistful come to mind. With the release of his newest covers album, Like Rats, you can add creepy to the list. The songs he’s picked to cover have lyrics that are alternately menacing and depressing, either overtly or because they’ve been stripped of their accompanying upbeat music. Kozelek has never shied away from darker themes in his music: the yearning loss in RHP’s “Michael,” death and loneliness (and maybe serial killers?) in SKM’s “Glenn Tipton,” regret and self-pity in his cover of John Denver’s “I’m Sorry.” Kozelek’s voice often soars over the intricate guitars, though, and its sweetness lends the songs a faint glimmer of hope. But on “Like Rats,” he sings a register lower than usual (more on that decision later) and piles dark song upon dark song until the listener is off-balance from the assault of negativity. The album is barely 30 minutes in length, and anything more might be too much.
It’s an interesting step in a career spanning more than two decades, but not entirely unexpected, as Kozelek’s output has become increasingly stripped down. His two previous studio albums consisted of nothing more than Kozelek and his nylon-stringed guitar. Many of his best songs have been the downers, and so it makes some sense to string together an album full of them. His guitar work has grown from great to virtuosic; listen to the solo and the flourish following the chorus of the album opener, Bad Brains’ “I,” or the unexpected interlude in Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From.” Every song has crisp, clear fingerpicked guitar, most of it achingly beautiful and strangely haunting. Kozelek’s guitar work alone makes this album worth a listen for any acoustic guitar aficionados.
Unfortunately, the instrumentation can’t fully take the attention away from Like Rats‘ most glaring flaw: Kozelek’s singing. As previously mentioned, his typical modus operandi is to sing in a dreamy, lofty style; even when he sings softly, his voice seems to take off. Strangely, though, following the lovely (and unrecognizable) version of “I,” Kozelek throws out a trio of songs on which he has chosen to mumble the verses. In Godflesh’s “Like Rats,”`he ends each verse inaudibly and off-tune; in the first verse of Ted Nugent’s “Free-For-All” he sounds uninterested; in Bruno Mars’ “Young Girls,” again he sounds flat, in emotion and pitch, until the chorus, when he shows how good he can be when he elevates his voice. More than half of the songs on the album have moments with these mumbled vocals.
Aside from those times where Kozelek does show off his pipes, Like Rats does have other high points. Many of the better songs center on Kozelek’s ability to separate a song’s lyrics from their original meaning. On “Young Girls,” he takes a fun-sounding song about partying with the ladies and makes it sound like a lament about sex addiction. He pulls the same trick on “Right Back Where We Started From”; it’s unlikely anyone would recognize it as the popular disco hit, and he turns the hopeful song about relationship rehabilitation into one about a guy who needs a restraining order. He rips through Josh Turner’s slow country song, “Time is Love,” at a breakneck pace, giving it an immediacy missing from the original, and the backing vocals again highlight Kozelek’s vocal strengths.
The eclectic song selection is another highlight: it’s unlikely most casual listeners will be familiar with even half of these songs, and almost all of them sound wholly reimagined. The Misfits’ “Green Hell” gets the same slowdown treatment as “I,” allowing you to appreciate the darkness of the lyrics. His version of Dayglo Abortions’ “I Killed Mommy” is disturbing, to say the least. The song title alone is enough to let you know that things are a little off here, but the original has a playfulness that minimizes the dark theme. To paraphrase Super Troopers, Dayglo Abortions’ shenanigans are cheeky and fun; Mark Kozelek’s shenanigans are cruel and tragic.
Like Rats has its highs and lows, but it will certainly appeal to Kozelek’s rabid fan base, as well as anyone who enjoys a good cover song and some intricate guitar work. The album’s dark themes are an intriguing step in a new direction, but Kozelek could have taken that step without resorting to those creepy vocals. In the end, his ability to reinvent a song is fascinating enough to distract from any missteps in his execution.
Like Rats Tracklist
01. I (Bad Brains cover)
02. Like Rats (Godflesh cover)
03. Free-For-All (Ted Nugent cover)
04. Young Girls (Bruno Mars cover)
05. Right Back Where We Started From (Maxine Nightingale cover)
06. Time Is Love (Josh Turner cover)
07. Silly Girl (Descendents cover)
08. Onward (Yes cover)
09. Carpet Crawlers (Genesis cover)
10. 13 (Danzig cover)
11. Green Hell (The Misfits cover)
12. I Killed Mommy (Dayglo Abortions cover)
13. I Got You Babe (Sonny & Cher cover)