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Owen - New Leaves

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Artist: Owen

Album: New Leaves

Label: Polyvinyl

Review date: Sep. 15, 2009

It’s interesting that after 20 years spent cashing in on sentimentality, Mike Kinsella’s finally taking the time to reflect on his emotional landscape. New Leaves promises change right in its title, or at least the potential for change. But there’s no re-awakening here. Kinsella starts things off with a tale of how his ever-present “you” spent the fall, but the record never makes it through the winter to get to the rebirth of spring.

It’ll come as no surprise that this is one of Kinsella’s most personal records as Owen. Aren’t they all? But it’s also his most guarded. His typically candid, straightforward songwriting has become a lot more complicated. Where it used to be Mike and his guitar that were the main focus, the rest of the band takes the lead most of the time. An autumnal piano sounds off the record on “New Leaves,” which quickly gives way to the startling unnatural synthesizers on “Good Friends, Bad Habits” and the country band-cum-chamber music of “Amnesia and Me.” The arrangements are bigger, more complex, easier to get lost in, and filled with the typical Owen arpeggios, hammer-offs, and little flourishes that say, “I’ve had a lot of time to really work these songs over.”

As emotionally impenetrable as the instruments are, Kinsella’s own inner song remains even more obscured by uncharacteristically opaque lyrics. Literary allusion has always been a crutch but on this record it’s become more like a motor. His aforementioned good friends with bad habits “fuck like Wilde” and “die like Hemingway.” There’s a classical reference to Hypnos’s court and stasis on “The Only Child of Aergia.” The profanity here is not vulgar or emotional or even insulting, but rather calculated and toothless in a way that only attempts at high modernism are. Lines like “I swear on my mother’s gravy that I didn’t lie to you / I just didn’t tell the truth” don’t even deserve a headshake, because that’d be giving him what he wants.

It’s all evidence of a serious case of arrested development, and it is actually quite moving when he actually talks about it directly. In his most explicit acknowledgment of his penchant for “A Trenchant Critique,” Kinsella breaks down all his insecurities over Owen’s sparsest and most delicate guitar rhythm to date. Perhaps things would be much clearer if the record had been named after “Too Scared to Move” instead of some dubious promise of renewal.

This record is supposed to mark a transition for Kinsella, into life as a husband and a father. Which it does, in terms of the insecurities and paralyzing self-doubt that come with being responsible for someone other than yourself. Hiding in nostalgia for some kind of relief is only natural, especially for a musician who’s trafficked in that precious emotion for so long. But as far as acceptance goes, I don’t see it. Instead, I see equivocation and a false start to a new beginning. Circumstances have changed but Kinsella’s ties to such a sentimental past haven’t. It’s the same as it ever was.

By Evan Hanlon

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