Mike Kinsella has been trapped in an involuntary persona for the better part of two decades. Call it arrested development, but the American Football frontman and sole-proprietor of the Owen franchise has built an institution on being a solo musician best known for collaborative projects. On his eighth solo outing, Kinsella has finally fractured the warbly exterior of nostalgia that ties him to this team-player credential.
‘The King Of Whys’ is an adult album, not in the same way you’d call a Peaches record ‘adult’, but in its weirdly exclusionary dissection of adult relationships. Presenting an unapologetically romantic record that fulfils all the whiny beta stereotypes attributed to the more refined emo community. Specific references to Mike’s personal relationships with his wife, daughter and father make the whole record feel intimate and, at times, voyeuristic throughout.
But does that make the album any more authentic? Not entirely. Writing a bad song with a good message doesn’t change the quality of the song in the same way that buffering a piece of music with personal anecdotes doesn’t make it more honest. A piece of art requires contextual weight to be considered worth our time.
Luckily, ‘The King of Whys’ is void of any bad songs and has an abundance of gravitas. While so many relationship-based albums use a broad stroke to draw divisions between relationships either functional or dysfunctional, Mike’s lyrics encompass the microcosm of flaws that act as brick and mortar for all relationships.
Contentions of dependence are addressed in opening track ‘Empty Bottle’ as Mike concedes: “I’m not coming down if you’re coming down”. It’s a beautifully tragic notion of two people struggling in tandem wrapped up in an unsustainable party metaphor.
And Kinsella has always been fond of these double-pronged imageries however, in this occasion, wires are sometimes crossed leading to janky collisions of aphorisms like “a nice night for a knife fight, between two boats drifting”. The execution is perfect but given the call and response delivery, the obtusity of lines like these can start to curdle and distract.
So what makes ‘The King Of Whys’ worthy of your attention? In short: these songs embody true stories. It sounds weird but the disconnect of between artist and audience across all genres can be distilled down to what the creative worth is of myth, fantasy and exaggerated details.
This is very much not the case here. In hopeless romantic eulogy, ‘The Desperate Act’. Mike sings: “I know how you long for this song to be over”, presumably writing for and about his wife. You can’t help but think of Mike as the kid inviting girls to open mics and watching their faces transition from admiration to embarrassment intermittently. But there’s a wry reality, especially on the track ‘A Burning Soul’, which documents Mike’s father’s issues with alcoholism and closeted skeletons.
Instrumentally, the album maintains the similar Owen tropes we’ve come to love and expect. Mike tweeted during the writing process: “Just realised that the beginning of two new songs sound exactly the same and then remembered that all my songs sound exactly the same so ok”. The arpeggiated riffs and delicate pianos are par for the course but a special mention needs to given to Bon Iver/Sufjan super-producer S.Carey who is partly responsible for the beefed-up and cinematic production. Tracks like ‘Lovers Come And Go’ as well as ‘Settled Down’ feature thunderous tom rolls and yearning string sections; these are staples in the sad-boy musicians’ utility belt.
So what’s next for Owen? Since 2002, Mike Kinsella’s songwriting has been documented from writing whiny songs of unrequited lust in a bedroom, to… still writing in a bedroom, but with an enlightened sense of perspective. It’s hard to believe that the same guy who affirmed his “right to be a fucking baby sometimes” (‘I’m Not Going Anywhere on ‘No Good For No One Now’), is now “conceding a childish need for attention” (‘The Desperate Act’). We all need to grow up sometime, but don’t expect it to be a smooth process.
Words: Will Butler
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