Album Review: Owen - The Avalanche
I hesitate to say that I have spent the last four years ‘worried’ about Mike Kinsella, the frontman for the iconic ‘emo’ band American Football, as well as the long running solo project Owen, but there are times when his lyrics have hit entirely too close to home, or when there has been a long, dark shadow cast over them, and I have grown….concerned.
I missed out on American Football during the group’s fleeting initial run in the late 1990s, culminating with the release of their storied, ramshackle self-titled debut album in 1999, subsequently breaking up almost immediately after that, with Kinsella going on to found Owen less than two years later. Reuniting in 2014, my point of entry for Kinsella and American Football is in 2016, with the release of the group’s second self-titled album, referred to as LP2 to make things slightly less confusing. LP2 arrived in the early autumn of 2016—I had just quit a job that, after two years, had taken its toll on both my physical and emotional health, and in leaving for something exponentially less stressful1, I was hoping that I could begin the slow climb out of the depression I fell into, and reigniting the creative drive and enthusiasm I had lost along the way.
I remember watching the shadows of the leaves from the tree that used to be in our backyard, dancing frenetically through the window on a autumn afternoon, while I at the desk in our office at home, listening to the album, impressed by the complex and sweeping arrangements, and how that gorgeous quality was contrasted starkly by Kinsella’s thinly veiled lyrics for dependence on alcohol, a tumultuous marriage, and depression—“I’ve Been So Lost for So Long” was my personal favorite song of 2016; its unflinching, poetic description of living through depression still difficult for me to face, even now.
Three years later, American Football returned with the more robust and dense LP3—lyrically, even darker and more unsettling. “Maybe more than anything, I’m sorry you love me,” Kinsella stated on “Heir Apparent,” or “We got married in the garden that you grew up in—I’ve never seen so far ahead of me, or been so blind. Now you’re buried in the library just so you could hide from me. I’ve never been so alone,” from “Doom in Full Bloom.”
Or, like, every single lyric to one of the album’s singles, “Uncomfortably Numb.”
American Football’s third LP was released only a year ago2, and Kinsella has returned with The Avalanche, the 10th effort issued under his Owen moniker. It is, unsurprisingly, a thematic continuation of what he began exploring within the last two American Football albums. It’s a ‘divorce record,’ and with grand, lush arranging—probably the most successful of Kinsella’s solo output to find itself in the center of the Venn diagram between emo, math rock, and a sad white guy with an acoustic guitar, once again paired with Bon Iver drummer Sean Carey serving as both producer and instrumentalist, providing just enough skittering, glitchy atmospherics underneath it all for an an additional, albeit small, dramatic flare.
Kinsella’s lyrics are certainly dramatic enough on their own, and The Avalanche finds him ruminating from a bleak, self-effacing place that at times can be ribald, uncomfortable, or too emotionally charged, but the most important element is that they all come from a very brutally honest, human place.
There’s a lyric from the song “I Need A Drink,” from the second self-titled American Football record that I think about a lot—“Oh, how I wish that I were me; the man that you first met and married.” That regretful, or at least remorseful, sentiment runs throughout Kinsella’s lyrics on The Avalanche, but here, it is a mixture of theatrical, poetic self-observation, blurred together with a palpable sense of frustration and restlessness, as well as a real hideousness—the kind of ugly, confrontational side of ourselves we try desperately to hide, but all too often, fail at disguising.
There are a few recurring themes that are placed throughout The Avalanche, some of which echo lyrics, or ideas, from the third American Football album—Kinsella’s strained relationship with his father being the most apparent. It’s alluded to in the single, and one of that album’s finest, most harrowing and beautiful moments, “Uncomfortably Numb,” when he sings, “I blamed my father in my youth; now as a father, I blame the booze.” Later, in the guest turn from Paramore’s Hayley Williams, she adds, “I’ve tried, but you’ve won. Comatose—like father, like son.”
A figurative ghost haunting Kinsella’s work, his father is now a literal ghost as well. His father’s death casts a shadow over The Avalanche, and also serves as the subject for “Dead for Days,” which recounts Kinsella’s brother Tim finding their father’s unconscious body (“I didn’t see him, but Tim did. That part had changed since we were kids.”) A ghastly image to weave into a pop song, he also connects it to his own marriage falling apart, his difficulties with sobriety, and his own….concerns and perhaps, in a very bleak way, hopes….that things will end the same way for him—“I’m riding a find line,” he sings near the end of the song. “An accidental overdose or suicide. Tell my mom she was right along, and tell my kids this is where my head hit.”
Within the concept of a ‘divorce record,’ the protagonist within the songs can easily paint themselves as the more likable, or at the very least, the more sympathetic of the characters included. However, it’s very apparent that is not what is happening on The Avalanche. Kinsella is not so much an ‘unreliable narrator,’ but he’s a likable misanthrope. He makes no effort to hide his contributions to the collapse of his relationship, and even if he is the ‘bad guy,’ or is depicting himself in that way, he is still a compelling figure, and his depressive, self-deprecating charm turns these songs into stories you want to hear, even though you already know how they end—and even if the ending is something difficult to hear.
“This is the role I was born to fake,” he declares early on the album’s first side, in “On With The Show.” “A crucified villain—middle aged. I memorized my lines and taught myself to cry…I’ve got a reputation of fucking up to uphold.”
The Avalanche is overflowing with examples of this very cutting assessment of Kinsella’s self—specifically as of late. “Now I’ve got friends that don’t know me; a wife that’s disowned me,” he states in the aforementioned “Dead for Days,” before adding later on, “I can’t believe she stayed as long as she did,” or “Lies and vanity—my worsts got the best of me. It appears I’ve lost everything,” he sings quietly and dejectedly in the opening of “The Contours.”
But within these moments of harsh reflection, there are also small glimmers of something hopeful, with strong implications that there is someone else he’s developed feelings for, though the depiction is ambiguous—intentionally so. The album opens a rollicking, dizzying track called “New Muse,” where he pleads, “Let me be anything but bored, or in love,” before changing the line at the end to, “Let me be anything but loved, or in love.” There is also the mysterious ‘you,’ mentioned in “Dead for Days”: “You in concept only.”
Along with those flashes of something hopeful, there is a darkness, too, that Kinsella is very quick to introduce, and in these moments, it is an ugliness and a difficulty that finds its way into the lyrics, seemingly; without any effort. “You said you like my voice, but I bet you say that to all the boys,” he begins on “Wanting and Willing.” “Put your mouth where your mouth is; your boyfriend can watch us—I don’t see a ring, but wanting and willing are two different things.” And if that weren’t challenging enough to hear, the opening line to “I Should’ve Known” is: “I can’t have my cake and fuck it too. Ok—I won’t make another goddamn joke. I know, how rude….” But even these wincey moments give way to things exponentially more profound, which is an interesting device used on the album. “Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear, except for you, my dear,” Kinsella says later on “I Should Have Known,” and “I feel nothing like myself since I met you. I know it’s been a bad year for us both. I’m not sure if I’m funny, or a joke, but I’m begging you to bet on this losing horse,” he asks on “Wanting and Willing.”
Released in June3, thematically, and musically, The Avalanche is not a ‘summertime’ record; it does not beckon to played within a ‘windows down, speakers up’ kind of situation. Even with a title, and sleeve art, that depict the coldest of months a year has to offer, between the subject matter of its lyrics, the earnestness of Kinsella’s vocal delivery, and the swirling instrumentation and arranging, The Avalanche has big, sad, autumnal energy—similar to the same, stirring beauty that I first heard, and felt, when listening to American Football’s second LP.
Kinsella originally partnered with producer Sean Carey in 2016 for The King of Whys, and this time out, the partnership of working as a producer, arranger, and playing numerous instruments on the record, finds Carey striking a balance: there’s a specific sound or aesthetic a listener might come to anticipate from both Kinsella as Owen, and Kinsella as the frontman for American Football, but there’s also huge sonic leaps here that allow The Avalanche to be its own distinguished work. Heavy on the acoustic guitar, it, overall, is an album that burns slowly and emotionally, and both sides of the album work tirelessly to create that tension between more robust, swirling, borderline jaunty songs, contrasted against slow motion, shimmering, sweeping grandeur—all of it absolutely gorgeous and at times very tender—effortlessly becoming a near perfect soundtrack for autumn. The kind of lush, complex, at times sprawling thing playing in your ears as the leaves turn and fall, blowing by you with a breeze indicative of the chill soon to come.
Playing out over nine songs, there are, of course, moments on The Avalanche that are more successful than others, and lyrical observations that are more poignant than others—and in some cases, lyrics that are more personally upsetting—leaving me with that ‘seen and attacked’ feeling, or at least finding a spectral reflection of myself in Kinsella’s words.
Placed at the top of the album’s second half, “Headphoned” is by far The Avalanches’s finest moment. Musically, it’s where all of the elements found across the album tumble together in the best way. Gorgeous and somber, it burns slowly, swooning when it needs to during the song’s refrain, with Kinsella’s precise acoustic guitar plucks backed by an undercurrent of glitchy atmospherics, synthesizers, and rolling percussion.
Lyrically, it is among the less direct from the album, with Kinsella steering things into more fragmented ambiguity—perhaps just one of the many reasons why it stands out as the album’s highlight. “I already read this room,” he begins, sounding somewhat despondent and just a little foreboding. “I know how it ends. It’s safe to assume that I’m not impressed.” And within all of that sweeping musical beauty, lyrically, it captures a ghostly sense of loneliness, and a longing that is not missing from the rest of The Avalanche, but it goes unspoken. “I’m still playing hide and seek,” he sings in the song’s refrain. “Nobody knows but me.”
And it’s the way he changes that line at the end of the song that is the most personally effecting, for me: “Nobody knows you’re the only one that’s ever even come close to finding me.”
Near the end of The Avalanche, in “Wanting and Willing,” once the more lecherous parts of the song give way to Kinsella’s self effacing reflection of himself, and a faint glimmer of optimism, he utters the line, “It’s been a bad year for us both.” And when this song was written, and recorded, along with the rest of the album, could Kinsella have had any idea what a lyric like that would go on to mean, within the context of this year?
It has been a bad year for longer than just this year, and it’s been a bad year for me, and for a number of people in my life—for the friend who got out of a seven year relationship and has spent the last year and a half wondering what to do with her life; the high school classmate who suddenly found herself a single mother of two young children, being dragged through a tempestuous separation process.
There is no resolution on The Avalanche. It’s not the kind of album that asks more questions than it provides answers, because for the aspect of the human condition Kinsella is writing from, and writing about, there are no easy answers to give. The album is simply a statement and a reflection on this time on his life—and this time on our lives, as listeners, as well. It isn’t an easy album to hear, lyrically, but that’s the point—it’s a reflection of life. Kinsella’s life, yes, but there are pieces of us in those reflections as well—boredom, restlessness, frustration, sadness, longing, loneliness, disappointment, love, and in the end, a small, cautious feeling of hope that maybe the next year won’t be as bad.
1- This is just a quick aside that is too much to shoehorn into this review, but after four years at my current job, I’m happy to say it’s the longest I’ve remained at a job since leaving college, and that I am, for the most part, encouraged by my immediate colleagues to do well and grow, but it has, recently, become so fucking stressful. Oh my god.
2- American Football’s third album arrived at the start of 2019 and that literally seems like a lifetime ago for myriad reasons.
3- The Avalanche was announced in the spring of 2020, with the release date of June 19th; ‘Juneteenth.’ Issued among weeks of racial tension and unrest across the country, Juneteenth was selected as a day when Bandcamp was donating its cut of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Kinsella himself felt compelled to donate 100% of the proceeds from that weekend’s sales to the same cause as well, however, he did catch some flak online from people chiding him for not delaying the release of his record. He clapped back, which was ill-advised, I guess, and he had to back peddle with an apology for lashing out. I guess what I’m saying with this footnote is that The Avalanche is a tumultuous record, already, and was unfortunately released during a very strange, tumultuous time in history.