Owen: Ghost Town

[8 November 2011]

By Enio Chiola

Mike Kinsella, better known to you as Owen, has had quite the fruitful music career.  A one-man-band, Owen has a style reminiscent of a rowdy Iron & Wine, which is still quite maudlin and mellow.  Written on the eve of the birth of his daughter, and thus forcing Kinsella to reflect on the tumultuous relationship he had with his own father, Ghost Town is slightly more elevated in atmosphere and instrumentation than earlier efforts, but is similar in vein to 2009’s New Leaves.

The album opener “Too Many Moons” is a nice acoustic number detailing the turmoil that this seemingly happy new father and spouse/partner suffer through.  Kinsella sings about raising and expelling the inner demons that keep him from being capable of contentment.  He sings: “I’m not coming home until these demons get bored / In mirrored eyes I see kerosene / and you’ve got the matches.”  It’s a haunting little tune, accented nicely by a surprisingly somber false end.  The track’s only drawback is the occasional emotionlessness of Kinsella’s voice, which butchers the French language.  He rounds out his intonation in such a way that it sounds stiff and unfeeling, which is confusing given the starkness of his introspective lyrics. 

This isn’t always the case. There are times when his line delivery conveys emotion well, but there are other times when such emotional portrayal falls flat.  On “No Place Like Home”, he sings:

There’s no place like home for collecting burdens / and conjuring ghosts that don’t know they’re dead / He insists that he’s just sick and I don’t have the heart / to tell him any different / It’s the way it’s been and the way it will be until we leave / We don’t need a mirror / We don’t need those pictures on the wall / We don’t need to see ourselves as we are now.

The instrumentation pulsates, indicating a degree of urgency in the subject matter, but Kinsella’s delivery is unflinching and unaffected.  It’s a jarring contrast that doesn’t completely work, even though, at this point in his career, most fans are probably used to his occasionally flat vocal delivery.  To newer fans, this may require some time to get used to. His voice isn’t a massive deterrent to enjoying his music, but it drags the album down slightly.  To an ear with a sensitivity towards pitch, Kinsella’s singing could potentially grate.

Ghost Town continues to trail on, never picking up tempo and never offering more than one or two musical surprises, like Kinsella’s expletive on “No Place Like Home”—“Fuck You and your front lawn / I’d rather die with my front hands tied”—or the scratchy ending to the album closer “Everyone’s Asleep in the House But Me”.  Ghost Town’s maudlin tone is haunting in quite a relaxing manner, reminiscent of supernatural horror movies that progress with a slow burn.  However, unlike one of those films, Ghost Town never culminates in some grandiose conclusion. Instead, it opts to sustain the aimless wandering that permeates throughout.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but can be a little anti-climactic to those craving some kind of closure to the narrative Kinsella has set up.

Overall, Owen’s Ghost Town plays like a well-crafted folk/pop atmospheric album, reminiscent of artists who do maudlin atmosphere better, such as Mark Kozelek, or Iron & Wine.  Unlike with Kozelek’s music, Ghost Town succeeds through Kinsella’s astute and easily discernible lyrics and haunting narrative-like insight.  One need only get pass the occasional MOR instrumentation to delve into the poetic lyricism of the album and truly enjoy the subtle beauty of this album, a beauty that may sometimes be a fluke.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149729-owen-ghost-town/