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It’s not often that you hear a record that pulls you kicking and screaming into a different world entirely. I’m sure you all know the type. Those albums where you lean back, shut your eyes, and let the soundscapes lift you off toward some distant realm, where you forget the miserable modern-day reality for but a short time. The most recent record that has had this sort of intense effect upon me was last year’s terrific ‘Certain Freedoms‘ LP by Trade Wind, who delivered a mesmerising, emotive and chilling blend of indie-rock and shoegaze. I haven’t really gotten an experience like that out of any record since then.
First, a confession. I had never listened to Owen before that of new record ‘The Avalanche,’ and still have not made the time to check out any of their past records. (Though I do aim to change that ASAP.) However, I absolutely adored the latest American Football album from 2019, and decided to give lead single ‘A New Muse’ a fair go when Mike Kinsella began promoting it. This track absolutely floored me, and hammered an interest and curiosity into me about ‘The Avalanche.’ Which quickly became one of my most anticipated albums of the summer. (American here!) And man… after finally hearing this LP in it’s full scope, I can’t help but feel that any expectations I had were absolutely smashed into a million tiny pieces by Mike’s latest creation.
Mike’s first new Owen album in four years is devastating and downright draining, but in an enjoyable, cathartic way. He delivers line after line of purely distilled and scarily familiar pain and sorrow, deeply rooted in a melancholic vocal performance and soft, beautiful instrumentals of acoustic lashings, electric licks, fitting percussion, and a real sense of ambience. Saying that ‘The Avalanche’ is a sad album is maybe the biggest understatement ever; this record is gripping, ripping out every single last heart string and flushing them down the toilet. Simply calling it merely sad for the sake of it is a disservice as well. This depressive, heavy atmosphere is combated and contrasted with warm and intimate instrumentals, which are so full of life that it makes it difficult not to notice every minimal detail; every subtle backing instrument scraping the walls of these songs.
For instance, ’Dead For Days’ wraps the listener in a lover’s embrace, with plucky acoustic guitars and artful strings filling the fine print of this beautiful cut. It soon track introduces the orchestral touches that are found all over this nine-track LP, with crescendoing, acoustic ambience filling every space.
Elsewhere, ‘Mom And Dead’ is sure to catch the attention of American Football fans, with absolutely stunning, reverb-soaked guitar loops perfectly accenting Kinsella’s subtle, mumbling vocal passages. It also features the wonderful vocals of Now Now’s Cacie Dalager, so what’s not to like? (Cacie also comes back around on the album’s closing track, ‘I Go, Ego.’) The instrumental songwriting on ‘The Avalanche’ is something to behold, grabbing a hold of your attention from beginning to end with subtle touches and simple but incredibly evocative melodies and performances. The flying vocal melodies and dejected, lonesome guitars and vocal patterns build a deep ambience that I found myself falling down into, like some wondrous rabbit hole. If serotonin had a sound it would probably sound like this.
‘Headphoned’ carries a noticeable, but likely unintentional, eastern Asian vibe, with its gorgeous, rhythmic tapping guitars soaring in the sky like birds above faraway rain forests. This is likely my favourite guitar riff on the record, and maybe even one of my favourites of the entire year; perfectly highlighted by these sunny acoustic bass lines. This track is followed by the loving, gushy-sounding ‘Wanting and Willing,’ which catalyses with a sombre intro guitar riff, before leading into a more playful and adventurous instrumental. The immensely fitting backing piano parts and tapping acoustic guitar lines bring you to a place of joyful, despite the dark and heavy-hearted lyricism put on naked displayed.
While Mike’s vocal melodies don’t ever become extremely dynamic from song to song, it’s very easy to tell that he has his own formula down in a way that works well. This is a given, as it’s solo project and all, but Mike’s vocal performance is an unmistakable, unavoidable highlight for all ‘The Avalanche‘ as it emotionally barrels towards you down the side of a touching indie-rock hill-side. Mike gives a stuttering and almost hesitant performance on songs like the outright depressing number, ‘The Contours,’ where he sings softly, full of a deep hurt that he instils into each and every measure. You can tell that this record and project is his – he’s been doing Owen record since 2001, after all – ensuring that honest feelings are being felt in every second of every song.
However, one of the biggest standout aspects on ‘The Avalanche’ is quite easily the dismal and bleak lyricism, filled to the top with lingering, dreary sadness and genuine longing. For one, Mike sings about life complacency and personal stagnation on ‘On with the Show,’ accentuating his fear of self-sabotaging the life that he has built for himself. “This is the role I was born to fake. A crucified villain, middle-aged. I memorized my lines and taught myself to cry” he sings at one point, driving a fresh stake deep into the heart of every person who has ever felt a similar way.
Elsewhere, on ‘Dead For Days’ and ‘Wanting and Willing,’ they show Mike struggling with sobriety. The latter of these two starts out fine enough in terms of maintaining his habit, until he starts singing about “sitting in a bar an hour outside of the city feeling sorry for himself.” The image of a recently sober man sitting in a bar, contemplating destroying his life for an ounce of relief makes for the darkest, most upsetting moment of the LP. And I’m not ashamed to admit that this kind of sincerity actually brought me to tears a little on my first listen. This record is, quite frankly, dark as all fuck, jerking the listener on a journey through the most gruesome depths of depression and sadness. Outside of how engaging and heartfelt is, there’s something to be learned from these tellings, only amplifying the record’s strength.
One of the more unique aspects of Mike’s lyrical process, however, is his uncanny ability to make you laugh, despite the dark and brooding subject matter behind these tracks. It’s a feeling that’s best compared to that of sharing funny memories at a funeral, to ease the sadness and put a smile on the faces around you. Take ‘I Should’ve Known.’Right from the start of the piece, it’s hard to take fully seriously, what with the opening one-liner of “I can have my cake and fuck it too” sending me into immediate chuckles.
Yet there is just something about the melancholic instrumentation behind these lines that makes it feel all the more ironic and hilarious, and in the moments where Kinsella delivers these kinds of thoughts, it makes one feel like there is a dim light at the end of his darkest tunnels. Similarly, ‘Wanting and Willing’ delivers the most “yeah, I fucking feel ya man” moment on the whole record, with Kinsella softly singing “I’m not sure if I’m funny or a joke.” Damn! It’s these more straight-forward, blunt moments on ‘The Avalanche’ that have the most staying power; keeping me coming back to finding a new line to tether myself to.
‘The Avalanche’ is a soft, cold yet inviting musical landscape of real and unadulterated sorrow, highlighted by a contrast of uplifting instrumentation, hopeless vocals and brutally honest lyricism. It is, in every way, a strikingly beautiful piece of art, whilst being quite difficult to swallow at times due it’s packaging of sheer sincerity, gorgeous textures, and depressive qualities. The rivers of pain and personality overflowing on this mountainous new Owen record, leaving behind a deep feeling of loneliness and sadness by Mike Kinsella is impressively translated into musical form. I honestly didn’t know what I originally expected when I decided to check out the guy from American Football’s other project, but I know I didn’t expect to love it as much as I do now. ‘The Avalanche’ swept me off my feet in all the right ways, so much so that it’s a little hard to put into words just how much I love this profound LP. Maybe you’ll love it too.
A New Muse
Dead For Days
On with the Show
I Should’ve Known
Mom And Dead (feat. KC Dalager)
Wanting and Willing
I Go, Ego (feat. KC Dalager)
‘The Avalanche’ is out Friday, June 19th: