Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now.
Anniversary Records: Owen’s (the ep)
by Chad Jewett
Owen, the nom-de-plume of Chicago-based singer/songwriter/emo royalty Mike Kinsella has been a project marked by remarkable, ever-evolving consistency. Over the course of seven full-lengths and three EPs, only 2011’s Ghost Town seems to show any signs of wear, any evidence of eclipse or entropy. And sure enough, that album’s follow-up, 2013’s L’Ami du Peuple was a startlingly confident return to form, perhaps his best album since 2006’s acme, At Home With Owen. The point, quite simply, is that Kinsella has found a remarkably elastic milieu in the changing lives of young(ish), slowly maturing city kids and their (seemingly) life-and-death struggles with maturity and love and mature love. Every Owen album seems to be marked with some new overarching thesis on what feels like a very small group of twenty- and (now) thirty-somethings. At Home With Owen has the aura of late-night resolutions, beginning with the acknowledgement of personal flaws, of the pathos and bathos of living a 22-year-old’s life at 29 and ending with the new-found beauties of commitment and daily patterns. New Leaves – as the title implies – continued that search for fresh joy in life changes as Kinsella figured out how to adapt his once biting photorealism for songs about newborn children and married life.
If the back third of the running triptych that is Owen has been concerned with self-discovery in the context of the comforts and anxieties of fatherhood and marriage, then Kinsella’s bracing middle period was almost entirely devoted to acidic narratives of late nights and hurt feelings. (the ep), which essentially served as an early glimpse at the epic proportions to which Kinsella would take these indie noir stories on I Do Perceive, feels like the beginning of that period in the lives of the people which Owen constantly sketches.
The short album begins with “Skin and Bones,” a song that, in its cutting consideration of human whims and failures, feels of a piece with most of what Kinsella was writing in this era (lets say 2004-2006), even if there are few Owen songs as panoramic, as camera-eye exhaustive. Essentially ping-ponging between ultra-objective descriptions of humanity (“Skin and bones, blood and teeth / Well this is essentially who we are”), and short glimpses of what moves these anatomic figures (“The tall good looking boy at the bar / Won’t have to stumble too far to find someone”), the song more or less serves as a distillation of Kinsella’s narrative concerns in this mini-trilogy of records (ending in the first half of At Home With Owen). Over and over again, both on (the ep) and the albums it foreshadows, Owen songs will hang in the boozy atmosphere of bars, then float along like the moon, cresting over scattered walks home. As such, the twin orbits of “Skin and Bones,” offering realism both physical and emotional, feels like an opening statement of purpose.
The song’s deceptively complex, winding aesthetic is also perhaps the closest Kinsella would come to the twined emo of American Football, the pasted-together mathematics of Cap’n Jazz (Kinsella’s drumming here emphasizes this reading, jittery fills punctuating at random, arriving then falling away by their own logic), even if, like so much of Owen’s discography, the song is mainly geared toward slow-dissolve, soft-focus pleasance, major chords rippling like hazy leaves overhead. Indeed, that Kinsella so frequently sets these stories of personal failure and carelessness to gorgeously unfolding orchestrations of gently murmuring guitar and airy, far off strings and organs offers a hint at the deeply empathetic humanism that actually motivates so much of the Owen project, even if the lyrics are frequently biting in their honesty. There seems to be an oddly beautiful humanity to these people.
If there were glimpses of new sonic possibilities on “Skin and Bones,” then there is similar expansion on “In The Morning Before Work,” a song whose trickling 4/4 lilt is laced with swooning pedal-steel guitar, giving the song an alt-country corona that Kinsella hasn’t visited much since, but which sounds revelatory as a sudden, gentle burst on (the ep). “In The Morning” also offers a crystallization of Kinsella’s other most salient narrative gift, allowing small, pointillist details to slowly expand and soak up meaning until the odds-and-ends that surround our days become synecdoche for things deeply felt. The song begins innocuously — “I eat with these crooked teeth / Tomato soup and grilled cheese” – before allowing those nouns to become echoes and reminders: “But you already know that because you used to dine with me / Do you remember?.” The song moves from slice-of-life simplicity to real pathos with revelatory economy, underlining just how talented a psychologist Mike Kinsella is at his best, just how precisely he can deploy simple snap-shots as firing synapses of memory.
“Breaking Away” anticipates the slow-curling simplicity of At Home With Owen, built around the autumnal wavers of an acoustic guitar arpeggio, and eventually, as emotional punctuation, some dancing strings. Yet where At Home was most revelatory in the way Kinsella invested in hard won sincerity and tough, committed love, “Breaking Away” is a strikingly beautiful exploration of mixed feelings: “We’re two bicycles ridden too tired to move / Which one of us two is dumb enough to choose the other as a lover.” A bit later, Owen songs would find their essence in the charmed, scruffy romance of the first line; around this time, Kinsella was chipping away at various ways of expressing the closing sentiment, a combination of committed critique and self-deprecation that would define I Do Perceive. Elsewhere, “That Mouth” unspools like a slow span of ribbon, hanging in the ambiance of hazy, mist-like studio haze before taking shape as a bronzed slow-core trickle, acoustic guitars dotted with keyboards, twanging electric guitar, shimmering vibraphone (courtesy of Cale Parks) and sculpted feedback. The song cycles through multiple word-plays, all in a tender sing-song melody, before landing on a joke about vampires that belies the song’s weariness, the slowest and most tired sounding stretch on (the ep).
The short album ends with “Gazebo,” a song that eschews the short, darting phrases of the rest of (the ep) for a long, near-novelistic monologue, one that only stops for short interludes of piano and water color splashes of hazy electric guitar (a gorgeous, near-constant for Owen). Like most of the narratives here, “Gazebo” is about missed connections and the second guesses of things left unsaid. At one point Kinsella mentions Raymond Carver, and indeed, there are few writers more in tune with the tired passages of quiet desperation that have defined most of Owen. Like some darkly humorous aside from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, there is both sugar and salt in lines like “It’s true what they say about fools who speak too soon / They don’t ever really know what they’re getting into or out of,” both gorgeous poetry and deep sadness in all of that confusion and gritted acceptance. (the ep) ends on that note, a short album that would constitute the opening gesture of Mike Kinsella’s increasingly expansive take on quiet, rustic, fitfully mature emo. Like the best of his songs, (the ep) (which, at twenty-three minutes, is more or less an album – after all, Milo Goes To College clocks in at twenty-two) operates like a cinematic slow fade, a glacial eclipse into the worried-over comforts of At Home With Owen, the gentle love songs of New Leaves, the reckonings of Ghost Town, and the warm aches and pains of L’Ami du Peuple. The discography of Owen has operated like time-lapse photography; (the ep) is a nighttime horizon, sometime just after sunset.