Owen

What does it mean to grow up with a musician, artist, band, etc.? It’s a personal answer depending on who’s being asked, but the responses can range from searching for parallels in growth to the music being the soundtrack of you maturing while the creator does their thing. It could even be seeing an artist or band evolve while you yourself change, thanking them for getting you this far, and then starting to go your separate ways.

In the case of Mike Kinsella, an artist whose sleeves have been covered by his heart many times, you can’t help but wonder about the shared progression, especially if you can go all the way back to his work on Jade Tree Records. So it’s understandable that people are viewing the earnestness on The King of Whys (out now) with a hint of personal reflection. Arguably Kinsella’s most complete work as Owen, there seems to be a fine line being walked between total closure and actualized renewal.

From the opening chords of “Empty Bottle,” you can tell there’s a different form of contemplation being exhibited. You can certainly hear it on older releases if you go through Kinsella’s catalog, but the inward facing lyricism seems more profound. He sings “This isn’t hello or goodbye; this isn’t anything if I’m not really anyone.” Those words exist in a space between two worlds where he’s trying to find a foot in both.

Struggles are laid open in ways that make the hurdles appear more like stepping stones towards something more important. A cold front moves in on “Settled Down,” but the tempo keeps moving forward as he exclaims, “So still I sit, until I can’t not move.” Musically, it’s a downpour that stops in midair as temperance takes hold. The back-and-forth of “Tourniquet” isn’t worth the fight anymore, and he’s willing to concede defeat as long as he can claim victory in one battle.

That balance though. One of the most striking examples is the grace and thoughtfulness he handles the ever-delicate issue of paternal relationships on “A Burning Soul.” Kinsella understands his dad wasn’t a paradigm of perfection, but he did his best, and now it’s his turn. Where so many artists would turn their back on such a figure, he reaches out a hand for acceptance. He’s aware of his own shortcomings on “Saltwater” enough to understand that he hopes to have the fortitude of the song’s particular muse. And he crashes to earth and feels more comfortable than ever in his surroundings and personal moments of weakness on “Island.”

With production support from S. Carey, the project known as ‘Owen’ is elevated to a different plane. He usually handles all of his recording and instrumentation, but duties are shared, and it creates a texturally rich soundtrack. Similar to the aforementioned contemplation that is apparent from the beginning of the album, so is this different take on production. Bigger sound progressions sweep in and stack up on “Empty Bottle,” and the isolation that keeps appearing is all the more noticeable when acoustic guitars couple themselves with pianos, pedal steel guitars, harps, and orchestral strings. There’s even a hint of John Hughes closing credits to “Lovers Come and Go,” only with a poignant separation rather than an embrace.

When Kinsella talked about the album, he expressed his worry about anyone under twenty-five not caring about a tired musician chasing his kids around. Then he added a “whatever” to the statement. The cheeky self-deprecation is noted, but the connection and understanding is there. Even if it’s just for those of us who “grew up” on his music, the relatability is palpable.

Again, The King of Whys is out now on Polyvinyl Records, and you should get it from their store today. Joey Smith