Owen - L'Ami Du Peuple
Record Label: Polyvinyl Records
Release Date: July 2, 2013
We're over six albums deep and somehow Mike Kinsella's solo effort, Owen, is still going strong. Even with the heavy burdens of both married life and fatherhood, Kinsella continues to churn out his signature crisp, melodic indie tunes like clockwork—both to the enjoyment of his many nostalgic American Football fans and, additionally, to the hordes of newcomers who've been hopping on the bandwagon since the early 2000s. Kinsella's latest effort, L'Ami du Peuple, is another solid, though remarkably inconsistent at times, addition to Owen's ever-growing catalogue, sure to please anyone with a soft spot for the personal, melodic indie tunes to which we've become so accustomed.
Musically, everything we love about Owen is there on L’Ami du Peuple. From the quiet, personal stream-of-conscious acoustic guitar tracks like “Who Cares?” to the indie-driven “Blues to Black” full of odd time signatures, it’s clear that Kinsella is still writing interesting, poignant songs for his listeners. The addition of looping and layering has become quite prominent on this record in particular and is, for the most part, used very well. “The Burial” is a song composed almost entirely of loops, and aside from the very first keyboard section at the beginning (which sounds like a stock choir sound you can find programmed into almost any cheap electric keyboard), the layers upon layers of beautifully melodic chords come to build an impressive soundscape. On the totally opposite end of the spectrum, there are songs like “Love is Not Enough” that barely use more than one layer until the very end of the track.
Clearly, there is a huge difference from song to song, and these aforementioned inconsistencies, equally a compliment and a criticism, come to stick out more and more with each passing listen. When viewing them in a positive light, one could say that Kinsella has released a very diverse set of songs here, ranging from the personal acoustic guitar tracks to the well-produced, full band cuts like “Bad Blood.” Stunning opener, “I Got High,” gives us the best of both worlds, beginning with only some soft chords and eventually swelling into an absolutely gigantic sound—one that almost could fill a stadium. The subject matter in this song comes across as significantly less dark than much of Kinsella’s previous work, containing lines like “There’s a chance to see something new, will you come with me?” suggesting that our American Football alumnus might not be as angry as he used to be. Skipping ahead to a few tracks later, though, with “Love is Not Enough” and “Coffin Companions,” and we quickly see that Kinsella is still as cynical as ever, covering topics like the monotony of suburban living and his inability to love in impoverished circumstances.
If these tracks are any indication, lyrically and emotionally, L’Ami du Peuple is all over the place. Yet, even while lacking in uniformity, there are definitely plenty of clever moments on here, including tie-ins to other songs woven into the tracks. Sometimes, the song titles allude to one another, like when “The Burial” follows “Coffin Companions,” or when the last line of “A Fever” is “Take me back to the beginning,” immediately preceding the next song’s first line: “Where Do I Begin?” Yet, keeping in theme with this album’s already well-established schizophrenia, for every clever tie-in Kinsella offers, he simultaneously writes a line that just doesn’t quite fit. For every “We’ll find a place in heaven that doesn’t flood when it rains,” there’s a “I’m fat and I’m drunk and you love me / The kids are a little weird but they’re happy.” In the end, Kinsella fails to ever really establish a definitive tone with this album, since half of the time it’s dark, insightful, and melancholy, and the rest of it feels lighthearted and even a little silly.
L’Ami du Peuple concludes with two up-close-and-personal songs, majorly driven only by Kinsella’s guitar and voice, stringing seamlessly together, and surprisingly, these are some of the weakest cuts on the album. Kinsella chose to give these tracks a much rawer production treatment, resulting in the guitar and vocals sounding largely unedited. Fretbuzz and flubbed notes galore, “Where Do I Begin?” and “Vivid Dreams” stumble across the finish line with a whisper and ultimately fail to leave a huge impression behind at the end like “One of These Days” did back in 2006. Of course, intimate songs like these are always welcomed additions to any Owen album, but given the sequencing of these tracks and the extremely tight and polished production on all of the songs preceding this finale, these closing songs come to feel like slapped-together, lazy efforts. As if their blatant repetitiveness isn’t enough, after such a well-produced front half, it basically ends up sounding like Kinsella gave up at the end, fumbling across his guitar and letting his mistakes shine over what otherwise could have been a very strong finale.
But at the same time, there’s an ethereal quality to L’Ami du Peuple’s conclusion. It’s a dreamy experience and feels far more open than anything else leading up to it. Whether or not I truly understand exactly where Kinsella has taken me over the course of the last 40 minutes, I still feel like I’ve gotten somewhere. I got on the boat in the beginning, but somehow, I don't know where it took me, even after multiple listens. Oddly enough, though, despite its unevenness, I still find myself wanting to hear this album, over and over again, and I definitely can’t wait to see what this friend of the people does for us next.