If I were to look back on every review I had written for this site right now, I’d find myself flattering artists, not admiring them. In talking about Grizzly Bear being pretty, or Will Sheff writing a damning line, I’d be using words like “perfect”, or “wonderful”, or perhaps most hilariously, for its insisting, canonizing effect, “classic”. I want to stop using these words. I think they’ve run their course, or maybe that I only use them because they’re more captivating ways of saying what “good” and “bad” mean, as if by lighting something up we could forget about its intentions. When scenes are “perfect”, they are also humbling; they stop short of themselves. So I’ll start doing that now.
I don’t find At Home With Owen
perfect. Like any Mike Kinesella record, I don’t even find it that good. For two songs, it’s as good as anything I’ve ever listened to, and that feels like enough, but Kinsella is no more suited to make this homely record than he is to drum for someone else’s band, to play sturdy math rock with snarky titles that sound like inside-jokes, or to make a cult favourite night-time album. I feel like he knows that; those first two songs act like an acceptance of a weightless nadir, their imperfections realised breathlessly to make harmony of them. He douses the epic fire of perfections with harsh cold water, or, if you’d rather, he lets us have it: “Whoever you think is watching you from across the room, they aren’t”. That’s not perfect; it doesn’t even describe a perfect moment. It’s more like a counter-balancing baptism, a “holy fu
ck" moment that crashes over platitudes, taking the self’s own brand of aggrandizing perfect – reaching out to take in – and cleansing it.
“The Sad Waltzes of Pietro Crespi”, the album’s second song (and one I contemplated leaving unnamed in this review, because I was worried about how imperfect it would sound right here
), does the same. It humanises, willing to admit the kind of thing I’m worried about here itself. If this were any other album, Kinsella’s fear of death might be wrapped up in ribbon, a mere coincidence to an idea of love that is unburdened and innate, and doesn’t need a couple more reasons. On At Home With Owen
it’s all kinds of sceptical, a looming ennui that people tool themselves around. “Could you love someone completely?” he asks, perhaps hopeful, before adding qualifications, the way you might start diminishing a description of anything, when you mull it over: “after all you’ve had and all you’ve lost”. In another review, I’d say he was shrugging. It sounds that way, at least in performance. His nimble guitar swindling (the same in any genre, with any backing) blows out, and for that moment the question becomes muted, less answerable because the answer might be laid out already. But Kinsella isn’t shrugging; he’s all about uncertainty. When he says “It’s a simple question”, I hear his lip curl – like he could bring this question back around.
Those are the two songs I really wanted to talk about, because the rest of the record is easily tarnished. “Bag of Bones” is pretty, an adjective I can bend from a Grizzly Bear record to this one. “Femme Fatale” is a bizarre cover, trenchant in its understanding of the Velvet Underground but sharply intoned for a record that ponders and placates around it. “A Bird In Hand” gazes like a ballad, and truly does become one towards its end. I haven’t necessarily thought about these songs as much, although really I just haven’t loved them to quite the same extent. Talking about “Bad News” and “Pietro Crespi” seems essential to me, though, and not just for some meta game about linguistics – I’ll probably come back and find what I’ve said contrived, dare to call a new meaningful folk record perfect, even this one, because records with only two important songs can still be favourites. But those lip curls and friendly resistances are important, musical tones we should guard with our lives. Not that they are bigger than our lives; they are flawed like us, fractured like us, hyperventilate like us. And that captures as much as perfect, if not more. There’s something about listening to a song that exists in moments without best and worst.