Album Review: Owen – The Avalanche

[Polyvinyl/Big Scary Monsters; 2020]

Owen, the solo project of emo’s treasured Mike Kinsella, has always existed as a dynamic diary with weathered pages, ready to reveal what he has been up to and what he has been feeling. Continuing to uncomfortably toe the line between humor and jarring self-deprecation, Kinsella’s latest record The Avalanche is Owen’s most honest and effortless.

While guiding listeners through crashing waves of unrestrained and raw poetry, Kinsella – with the help of producer S. Casey (Bon Iver drummer) – makes every single one of his aching words deeply felt. This is achieved by imbuing the recognizable Owen sound with a resounding level of musical depth that listeners have yet to experience from the long-standing project. By texturing the project’s well-established, straight-forward guitar sound with ample string arrangements, electronic hues, and pronounced lap-steel guitar, Kinsella has made an Owen record that compels beyond his gripping storytelling.

This ornate turn makes it logical to draw a line to LP3 of his other, more renowned, music project American Football. Unashamedly echoing the lush ambiance of LP3, The Avalanche is the record that unifies the essences between the two projects.

As LP3‘s lavish nature reverberates in the back of listeners’ minds, The Avalanche makes this linkage most apparent within the first track and lead single titled “A New Muse”. Commencing with a profoundly bleak yearning, “Dear Lord / Let me be anything / But bored or in love,” Kinsella expresses startling desolation with an intoxicating atmosphere that marries shuffling drums, delicate guitar strums, and assuaging synths. A beautiful song that’s layered beyond belief, “A New Muse” radiates with detail that hits like a lead fist to the chest – despite its light and feathery nature. 

Cut from a similar cloth is “I Should’ve Known”, which pairs Kinsella’s most miserable sentiments – “I can’t have my cake and fuck it too” – with a sound that parallels the same majestic and wintry energy as the record’s cover art. Faint yelping horns dance with bellowing strings in the ether, leaving the earth below wide open for Kinsella’s unmatched string-plucking to elegantly roam.

Most tracks on the album build into these large, heavily-nuanced chamber folk compositions, which can feel tedious at times, but “On With The Show” provides a much-needed tonal uptick as the lone “sing-songy” moment on the album. A jangle-pop earworm with a guitar lead that eerily recalls The Smiths (whom Kinsella has cited as a considerable influence in the past), “On With The Show” moves you to feel hopeful for the songwriter, who pains his way through lines like, “This is a cold for which I could not brave / To to the bone, to the heart / To be taken to my grave.”

Kinsella leaves no stone left unturned when it comes to singing about heartbreak, self-medication, and self-deprecation. Though these are themes that have anchored Kinsella’s core for years, his words weigh heavier in his middle-age. It is natural to become enraptured by the new sonic dexterity found on The Avalanche, but there is something about how Kinsella wears his heart on his sleeve – messily – that keeps listeners grounded and even startled. “Mom and dead / Never together / Forever / An overseas / Tragedy,” Kinsella weepingly sings on the devastating “Mom And Dead”; Wake up / I had a dream you died / I can’t wake up / You didn’t say goodbye.”

Kinsella has always written about his parents’ broken marriage, separation, and his own turbulent relationship with his now-passed father. The emptiness left by tragedy, however, has widened as Kinsella himself gets deeper into fatherhood. Instead of merely working through his own childhood trauma, as he’s done in the past, “Mom and Dead” sees Kinsella exorcise the notorious “you’re just like your dad” phrase in utter, searing despair. He sings of not only his father’s shortcomings and tragic end, but the hereditary possibility of his own marriage and life experiencing the same fate, which also is expressed on “Dead For Days”: “I’m riding a fine line / An accidental overdose or suicide / Tell my mom she was right all along / And tell my kids this is where my head hit.”

It’d be too easy to assume Kinsella is in a better headspace by acknowledging the flicks of humorous self-deprecation and a new-found musical grandiosity – not much else about The Avalanche suggests he is even at the cusp of finding clarity in the darkness. He does, however, appear more accepting of his downfalls and pains of being human. Being the open book that he always has been, Mike Kinsella has made not only one of his sincerest works to date, but also one of the most brutally honest albums of the year.