Owen | New Leaves (Polyvinyl)

cd_owen.gifIt’s comfortable; you can be yourself, come as you are…yet you can’t help wondering if that’s enough.







A new Owen record is like an old friend in new clothes. It’s a friend you’ve known for years; your friendship, so old, is simple, understated, and yet deeply intricate. It’s comfortable; you can be yourself, come as you are…yet you can’t help wondering if that’s enough. You know what to expect…and yet you get more than you bargained for: he’s dressed up for the occasion, added an accessory here and there. You feel understood and supported, yet you take on said friend’s baggage as well—willingly, or perhaps merely out of a sense of responsibility.

All this is to say New Leaves isn’t new ground for Chicago’s Mike Kinsella, yet it is. The music lulls with a false sense of simplicity: the mellow’s music, the lyrics stark, pointed and gently delivered. But there are layers upon layers of sounds and instruments and notes, and Kinsella’s words are butter-smooth yet pointedly caustic. Whether he’s singing about being the oddity or pointedly delivering the sentence to another, he’s brilliant; you must know this.

Disc opener "Curtain Call" puts you on solid footing; this is Owen, this friend you know. "Ugly on the Inside" is this album’s "Bad News," a song in which Kinsella sets the "you" character straight on his or her personal faults. Here he sings, "The makeup that you use to catch some eyes/ and hide your imperfections does little to conceal/ an ego that’s been bruised so many times/ that you’ve left it at home." The piano on this track is sparse, but when it comes it’s such a thing of beauty.

The richly textured "The Only Child of Aergia" throws up something new: Kinsella’s vocals removed, as if through an echo chamber. The piano-laden yet simple "Brown Hair in a Bird’s Nest" glides into "Too Scared to Move," a song tinged with yearning. "I know that you want more from me," he confesses, "but I’m too scared to move." The underlying guitar of "Amnesia and Me"—a nickname "for the girl that’s in my life"—is alternately aching and rollicking; here, the strings perfectly offset Kinsella’s voice and the mixed-message music. Backing vocals provide an echo on the first few lines of "Never Been Born"; drums kick in and feature prominently, opening the door for a plaintive guitar line.

Kinsella’s finger-picking skills are on full display on "A Trenchant Critique;" with his vocal/lyrical prowess, it’s sometimes easy to forget he’s a musician as well. With its textured instrumentation and straightforward guitar line, "Good Friends, Bad Habits" hooks at the outset. Once again, Kinsella turns the light on his inner circle: "I’ve good friends with bad habits/ what am I to do?/ literary antics/ they fuck like Wilde/ and indulge like Hemingway." Classic lyricism to all of us who majored in English, that.

Owen saves the title track for the end, a swelling, layered effort of a character study. "You spent the fall turning over new leaves/ seem more resolved than ever/ to dig your own grave." There’s that friend, giving us advice again…although with his unblinking eye, we wince a bit, not sure how to take his words.

Ironically, live Kinsella often performs solo with an acoustic guitar. You’d think hearing the song so stripped down would take away from its beauty, its richness reduced to a single guitar line. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Owen any way is still Owen, that old friend who hasn’t let you down…but there’s always tomorrow. A | Laura Hamlett

RIYL: American Football, Owls, Elliott Smith

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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