If albums could be judged solely on their surface sheen alone, Owen’s I Do Perceive would be a strong contender for the prestigious winner’s circle. The new solo album from Chicago-based artist Mike Kinsella (Joan of Arc, American Football) is packed with multilayered guitars, all sequentially stacked and arranged, executed with the precise harmonic convergence and density of Lindsay Buckingham’s Out of the Cradle. Many of the songs’ arrangements are beautiful in and of themselves, composed of rich acoustic tones that web and fuse with an almost scientific precision.
So it’s a disappointment that Kinsella infects these pleasant tapestries with near-fatally wounded songs of vehement self-loathing. Like Death Cab for Cutie thrown over the proverbial sad bastard ledge, Kinsella’s “Owen” persona is introverted, forsaken, and defeatist; if the desired effect is some sort of empathy on our part (because, admittedly, this sickly sweet, swooning bedroom pop is all about shared feelings and experiences), the rendered one is solely alienation. Owen’s interpretation of emotional pop music is an artistic ploy, a starved desire for attention masquerading as internalized angst. Owen’s head is hung to the ground, feet coyly pushing the dirt around in swells of “aw shucks”—I Do Perceive disingenuously dresses up the hurt and asks us to care.
Kinsella, in a shy, injured, froggy voice that further emphasizes the songs’ tortured reflection, masters the nonchalantly catchy yet nondescript chorus, most notably in the swaying opener “Who Found Who’s Hair in Who’s Bed?” and the blossoming “Note to Self:”. Marked by guitars that affectionately pluck and swirl, these choruses are built on emotional waves that aim to overwhelm and instruct, nudging us towards a particularly sentimental reaction. In “Note to Self:”, Kinsella milks a supposed self-reflection that is so disappointed it borders on hateful: “You’re just more unlikable than you used to be… / You’re a long ways away from the place you thought you’d be by now”.
The repeated attempts to be lyrically perceptive and analytical routinely fall short of achieving profound insight. In “Playing Possum for a Peek”, Kinsella prosaically laments “our stupid instincts and our stupid desires”. Later, alongside nice little bluesy guitar fills in “She’s a Thief”, he emotionally flagellates himself: “You dumb fuck—your life’s a mess without her”. This latter quote is one example of the many times Kinsella feels compelled to swear—his repeated desire to curse inside of a gentle, sensitive ballad sticks out like a sore thumb and feels like it’s perpetrated as nothing more than another blatant device. It therefore becomes easy to excuse the saccharine-tinged “Put Your Hands on Me, My Love”, for although its distant strings and melodically coiffed lead guitar are the musical equivalent of crocodile tears, the song’s lyrical dissection of karma is wholly truthful.
The longest song on I Do Perceive (of which there are many, since most of the songs reach or surpass the five minute mark) is “Bed Abuse”, which overstays its welcome by running well over seven minutes. It’s within this song that Owen’s psychological drab pop crawls out of its head and manifests itself in a more literal fashion: “I spend most days in this bed that I abuse / On these pillows that you can’t get used to / I spend entire days putting off that which can wait / Until I’m knee deep in my own waste”. It’s an adept encapsulation of the album entire, accidental as it may be; I Do Perceive wallows in its own misery and self-pity, and no number of gorgeous guitars can save it from itself.