Even in his ugliest moments, Mark Kozelek has always treated the music he loves with sanctity. In fall of 2015, he took to opening concerts with a beautiful a cappella version of Andy Williams’ “Moon River,” all while still reeling from (and still commenting on) the backlash from his gross comments toward Guardian writer Laura Snapes just a few months earlier. The shows were a strange hybrid of naked vulnerability and I’m-kidding-but-not-really rants directed at his most vocal critics.
To say so feels like a cliché, but that duality is fascinating because, well, duality is almost always fascinating. One learns a lot about an artist by being privy to both their positive and their negative traits, of hearing them sing about being moved by a Led Zeppelin documentary, then getting goaded into bullying a classmate in the same song. It’s up to the listener to decide if the ugliness has a limit, if there’s a point where the darker aspects of the musician turns them from a fan to a detractor.
If they’re just going off of the music, even Kozelek’s detractors will have a hard time taking issue with his latest batch of covers. Gone are the spoken (sometimes shouted) word ramblings of Universal Themes and the unnecessary fan letters read on his Sun Kil Moon collaboration with Jesu. Gone are the fingerpicked interludes and jarring shifts in time signature, switched out for delicate arrangements consisting solely of soft piano and voice. Arrangement-wise, it’s closest to the quietness of Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols, and not just because it contains an unseasonal—yet still soothing—rendition of “O Holy Night.”
Due to the sparse arrangements and chord progressions that mostly stay faithful to the original versions, any variety on Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites comes from the vocals. Toning down the latter-day yowling in favor of his mellow baritone, he peppers the tracks with slight variations that inadvertently serve as hooks, from the falsetto backing on 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” to the in-the-round overdubs on his latest Modest Mouse cover, “Float On.” As with the songs on Tiny Cities, it functions as a soft-rock counterpoint to Isaac Brock’s Jekyll-and-Hyde idiosyncrasies, teasing out the joy through calmness as opposed to hyperactivity.
Kozelek also brings along a cast of supporting players to further underline the tenderness of the songs he’s selected. Despite the high-profile personalities involved, they never overwhelm the fragility with vocal histrionics, whether it’s Mike Patton subtly bolstering the chorus of David Bowie’s “Win” or Minnie Driver gamely stepping into Nancy Sinatra’s backing vocals on “Something Stupid,” with Kozelek taking on the part of Ol’ Blue Eyes. And yet, some musical bulldozing might be in order. As relaxing as it is to hear Mark Kozelek sing favorites, the consistent pleasantries result in the album feeling minor and a little safe when compared to something like Benji. Sometimes, it takes a little ugliness and danger to elevate an album from good to great.