The concept behind Mark Kozelek’s new record—take metal songs, punk songs, classic-rock and pop songs and deliver ’em slow and soft, accompanied only by stripped-nekkid acoustic guitar—is really kind of unimaginative. As if a piece of music automatically becomes deeper or more interesting simply because it’s presented with a contrarian arrangement. Besides, it’s been done to death. Beyond death. It’s been eulogized, buried, grave-robbed, burned and buried again.
Kozelek dabbled in it himself back in the ‘90s with the Red House Painters (see the band’s dreamy, Jesus & Mary Chain-indebted cover of KISS’ “Shock Me”), before diving in headfirst with his all-AC/DC acoustic covers album What’s Next to the Moon in 2001. And he went back to the well again with Sun Kil Moon’s 2005 Modest Mouse covers record, Tiny Cities.
But—even taking into account the dead-horse-beat approach—Kozelek owns the songs on Like Rats, just like he’s owned all the other sparse covers he’s ever attempted. The second Kozelek wraps his wounded, weary, cocoon-like voice around them, they cease to be what they once were, transforming from shit-kicking rock ‘n’ roll caterpillars into alluring folk-ballad butterflies. Actually, scratch that. It’s not entirely correct. They don’t cease to be what they were (the butterfly, after all, is just a caterpillar with wings); when Kozelek covers AC/DC—or in this album’s case, Ted Nugent or the Dayglo Abortions—his hushed delivery tears away the artifice, strips off the howling veneer and gets at the vulnerable core Bon Scott might never have wanted you to see—a dark, unsure, even terrified part of his subconscious that maybe he never quite understood, or that he was perhaps completely unaware of, being shrouded in the drunken quaalude fog of ’70s rock stardom.
Like Rats is a journey of a record—a mostly foreboding, minor-key journey, anchored by Kozelek’s newly mastered classical- and Spanish-guitar chops. (It’s a style, his publicist says, that he’s been obsessed with recently.) Every once in a while, the album offers a flash of something ancient, mysterious—a foreboding glimpse behind the curtain of the human psyche at some truth so cavernous, frightening and hard-to-grasp that we can’t normally focus our eyes long enough to see it. But we can damn sure feel it.
But it’s not without balance. Around Like Rats’ halfway mark, the shadow lifts slightly, momentarily with the sighing, tender—and let’s face it, kinda-fucked-up-coming-from-a-45-year-old—“Young Girls.” Musically, at least, it offers respite—an island of peaceful contemplation in a tempestuous sea of darkness. After a brief foray back into minor sounds, the mood shifts neutral again, any demons held at bay for the stretch of songs from Descendents’ “Silly Girl” through Genesis’ “Carpet Crawlers.” While this section of the record is still exhausted, wistful and slightly broken, more than a few streaks of sunlight splash through Kozelek’s otherwise endless blankets of stratus clouds.
With the end approaching, as we get to Danzig and The Misfits, night begins to fall, bleak and cold again, the songs puffing along, solitary breaths in the winter air. Slowed to a relative crawl, the latter’s “Green Hell” is infinitely creepier than the stomping punk-metal of the original. During the verse, when the infamous devil-summoning triad hits, the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up like the blood-drenched stakes from which Vlad the Impaler hung his victims. It’s a proper set up for hyper-violent, minute-long murder ballad “I Killed Mommy” by The Dayglo Abortions.
Finally, at the end, like turning on the lights after a scary movie, Kozelek’s cover of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” coasts Like Rats safely back into the warm, forgiving fuzz of reality, banishing all the banshees, making it safe for us to go to bed.