Not only does I Like to Keep Myself in Pain reaffirm Kelly Hogan's unrivaled ear for heady, challenging material, but it also cements her status as an interpretive singer with few equals. Hogan's song choices reflect a breadth of knowledge of pop music that spans genres and eras, and she has a real gift for knowing when a song is a natural fit both for her voice and for her progressive approach to country music: On previous albums, she roped songs by Randy Newman and the Magnetic Fields into the country genre, and she plumbs the catalogues of artists like Andrew Bird and M. Ward for material here. That Hogan carefully considers broader themes as she uncovers relatively obscure cuts and cult favorites is what makes her more than just a covers singer and why I Like to Keep Myself in Pain emerges as such a deeply rewarding album.
The title track, a Robyn Hitchcock cover, serves as a proper thesis statement for an album that trades is self-sabotage, regret, and doomed relationships. Over a gently strummed Spanish guitar figure and subtle Hammond organ, Hogan wails, "Pain's the only thing you left me/If I let it go, then I won't know who I am," and she spends the remainder of the album inhabiting a diverse roster of characters who strive to find beauty in even the most flawed decisions and people. She bellows Jon Langford's "Haunted" like a spirited call to arms for anyone who can't let go of past failings, while "We Can't Have Nice Things," a co-write between Bird and Jack Pendarvis, finds the singer surveying the ways her home life reflects on an unhappy marriage, turning on the revelation, "Still, I'd rather have these things than nothing."
Hogan's own "Golden," the set's most optimistic track, is a reminder that, though she doesn't often write her own material, she's a fine songwriter in her own right. But she's never better than when she tackles Stephin Merritt's songs: Her rendition of "Papa Was a Rodeo" from the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs is one of the best country singles of the last decade, and her cover of "Plant White Roses," one of Merritt's earliest songs, is the highlight of I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, finding Hogan at her most soulful and showcasing the loveliest aspects of her voice.
Both as a singer and producer, there's little about Hogan that's show-offy. Armed with an ace backing band that's able to maneuver from the girl-group pop of "Sleeper Awake" to the haunting Southern gothic of "Daddy's Little Girl," Hogan's arrangements and performances are always intuitive and in service to the individual songs. That may not make I Like to Keep Myself in Pain an especially flashy country/Americana album, but it makes it an extraordinary one that should finally bring Hogan the attention she deserves.