Owen is the solo-project, labor-of-love of Chicago musician Mike Kinsella, and it originally began as an outlet for him to compose the music he had always wanted to write. No need for strange instrumentation, odd time signatures and that all-too-familiar indie-trap of strangeness for its own sake. His solo music is generally contemplative, naturally autumnal, nostalgic and curiously literary. Kinsella’s songs have centered around tales of fatherhood, down-to-earth realism, indulgent flights of fancy, and head-nods to fiction writers like Raymond Carver, Oscar Wilde, Milan Kundera and J.D. Salinger. His 2009 release, “New Leaves” (the title alluding to the pages of a book), is an album about life changes and regeneration. It’s a blend of folk, chamber music and flowing arpeggios, which at times showed both Owen’s strong songwriting and lyrical awkwardness. There are memorable verses like one in, “Good Friends, Bad Habits”, tucked in a swell of guitar melodies, that describes friends who “fuck like Wilde and indulge like Hemingway”.
It’s that teetering balance between Owen’s rough, half-spoken vocals and pretty musical accompaniment, that gives his music a real sense of struggle and sincerity. His upcoming release, Ghost Town (available Nov. 8th via Polyvinyl Record Co.), continues that drive into emotionality begun in “New Leaves”, as the singer fights to find the right words to express soul-searching and sea change. Owen charms with melodrama, sentimentality and honesty. Two of the new singles, “I Believe”, and “The Armoire”, are about a type of rescuing, whether by spirituality or dumpster diving for vintage furniture. Both songs are about making something anew, coming home, finding solace (whether in metaphysical contemplation or family camaraderie), and breathing life back into something dead.
There’s some strained, confessional moments on “Ghost Town”, like the opening lyrics of “No Language”: “I guess I’m still angry … / I drop-kicked an old lady”. But more often than not, some of those flaws are diluted amid a wash of beautiful arrangement and harmony. There’s also a pretty reflectiveness to Owen’s lean lyrical approach, like the verses in the album closer, “Everyone’s Asleep In the House But Me”. The lyrics often read like smoke signals, like the writing of the authors he admires, verses simply constructed and imbued with a meaning that resonates like reverb: “Everyone’s asleep in the house but me / I’ve long since caved in / To the promise of dreams.” There’s real power in that line.
The album opener, “Too Many Moons”, an Andrew Bird-like song about a husband’s unrest and infidelity, uses a few French phrases directed toward a wife. Once again, there’s a mesmerizing entanglement of orchestral strings, sexuality, confessional lyricism and the uncouth: “Au revoir, bonne chatte / There’s too many moons / But I’m one man / You know I like to get lost without you / And return with dirty thoughts about you / So don’t wait up / ‘Cuz I’m not coming home / ‘Till my insides hit the floor … / Don’t wait up / I’m not coming home, until these demons get bored.” The lushness of “Ghost Town” is the stable foundation, while the songwriting trembles with contrast: an undertow of artistic guile and naked truth. Its style emphasizes that this is real music, written and played by a real person, who in one flick can drop chord changes like discarded diamonds, and in the next unsettles with lyrics both beautiful and fallible. There’s a peculiar strength in “Ghost Town”, in the way it reveals the insecurities and flaws of the artist, as well as those of the characters that people the songs. Owen’s gossamer, finger-picking elegance underscores the passion and bravery of his best tracks. The songs of “Ghost Town” are a core reminder that language, love, and life are just so brittle. Note: “Ghost Town” will be available on limited-edition 180-gram clear or black vinyl, CD, and digital formats. All pre-orders come with an instant MP3 download. — David D. Robbins Jr.
Owen “I Believe”