[11 January 2007]
Along with his brother Tim, Mike Kinsella helped shape the emo landscape since in the early 1990s, first with the posthumously seminal Cap’n Jazz and later in acts such as Joan of Arc and Owls. While his brother garnered most of the press (and often derision) for his obtuse lyrics (as well as fronting another handful of side projects), Mike quietly focused on his own songwriting. Unfortunately, like Cap’n Jazz and Owls, Mike’s bands never lasted long before dissolving. The One Up Downstairs and American Football both fell apart while establishing in the midst of establishing the kind of buzz most acts only dream of. Not surprisingly, his solo project Owen has been his most enduring project to date. Eschewing the verbal acrobatics of this brother, over the course three albums and a handful of smaller releases, Kinsella has directly addressed love, loss, anger, and regret with songs that are painfully direct and carefully crafted.
At Home With Owen expands the minimal guitar and voice aesthetic palette that Kinsella has stuck with until now. Moving away from the home recordings that have marked his past efforts, for his fourth album, Kinsella employed the help of his cousin Nate at Semaphore Studios and Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Red Red Meat) at Engine Studios to create his most sonically intriguing record to date. And while the strings, stand-up bass, and sharp drums add a lush dynamic to Kinsella’s songs, much of At Home With Owen veers close to a monotonous sound. “Bad News” and “A Bird in Hand”, each running well over five minutes, are easily the most accomplished songs of the disc, but there are a run of songs between them that, with Kinsella’s raw voice pushed to the front as usual, and delicate compositions, begin to blur. Luckily, Kinsella saves his best material for the last third of the disc. “Femme Fatale” pulses with a strangely retro vibe, with throbbing keys and a gripping pop hook carrying the tune along. “Windows and Doorways” features some of Kinsella’s finest guitar work—both on acoustic and electric—since the days of American Football. It’s pure pleasure hearing his fingers dance effortlessly around the fretboard and a testament to his writing that it doesn’t distract from the song’s overall arc. The album closes with the wonderfully poignant “One of These Days”, a grey-morninged daydream for the down on their luck.
Lyrically, however, Mike has kept things familiar, wading unflinchingly into his personal life, continuing to document his struggles with courageous honesty. Yet, despite Kinsella’s willingness to leave no stone unturned, one wonders when his lyrical focus will change. Album and after album, Kinsella can’t seem to find a girl and even when he does here (“A Bird in Hand”) he is plagued by an inability to convey his feelings to her. “Bad News” continues a trend of Kinsella songs softly, yet efficiently, cutting down an ex, while with “The Sad Waltzes of Pietro Crespi” he practically begs for an unconditional love. In his own press notes, Kinsella is proud of the album for being the most three-dimensional to date, and to a point he is right. At Home With Owen does examine his failed relationships with more detail than in the past, but after six years churning out similarly thematic songs, I wonder if the problem isn’t with the women he meets (“Femme Fatale”) but with Mike himself.
At Home With Owen never makes any illusions about its subject matter, but Kinsella is at the point in his solo career when his lyrical gaze needs to move higher than his navel and embrace a variety of viewpoints. It would be interesting to see more songs written from his girlfriends’, best friends’, or coworkers’ points of view—something that would allow a more multifaceted account of his life. Overall, At Home With Owen is yet another fine entry into Kinsella’s discography. There is enough fine playing, and emotionally potent moments to overlook the troubling narrative. Hopefully, the corpse on the front of the disc points to the death of one phase of Kinsella’s solo career and promises something fresher the next time around.