Review Summary: A Lifetime of Bitterness
Who is Mike Kinsella? Is he the post-teenage poet that birthed the most ubiquitous emo album of all, or the soft-spoken, Honda Element-driving father of two that lives under the former’s shadow? As the American Football reunion album looms, the distinction between these two artists is more blurred than ever before. The King of Whys was released as news of the new record began to pick up steam, which may have garnered some extra attention from those excited for American Football, but also diminished its impact to some extent. This is a shame, as The King of Whys presents the most restrained, poignant picture of Owen since 2006’s At Home With Owen. Going back to more tender territory presents a stark contrast to 2013’s eclectic L’Ami du Peuple, so how does this change fare against Owen’s back catalogue? Well, that depends on how you like your Kinsella.
The King of Whys was produced in collaboration with S. Carey, who also serves as the drummer for Bon Iver. This influence is reflected in the chilly, well-spaced production of every song, and this is perhaps most obvious in opener “Empty Bottle.” The track explores a wide soundstage, with heavy drums pounding behind reverb-driven acoustic guitar. The result is a gorgeously fractious web of percussive noise that expands and retracts persistently alongside Kinsella’s tender timbre and resigned lyrics. “You’ve got a lot of nerves, will you please touch mine with yours?” he emotes, setting the stage for themes of the walking-on-eggshells nature of domestic love. While the opener is representative of the rest of the album lyrically, it is a sonic anomaly within the tracklisting. The majority of the record can be summed up by the next track.
“The Desperate Act” is a steady, sparse track that probes deeper into Kinsella’s marital wins and woes. “Somehow all of a sudden, I find myself struggling. Two lives are too much and not enough” Mike muses, calling to arms his wistful, yet apathetic style to great success. Understated production gives the double-tracked vocals an enhanced weight and allows the song to stand above the album as one of its great successes. There are some instances on the record that may have benefitted from this level of restraint, such as in “Lovers Come and Go”, which employs some incongruous percussion in its choruses that seems to materialize from nowhere after each verse. Moments in which sudden dynamic changes provide a positive effect generally follow the opposite formula, dropping several tracks to isolate Kinsella’s vocals and guitar. The bridge of penultimate track “Sleep Is A Myth” provides a great example of this. The track consists of drowsy yet sinister guitars and electronic drums that persist up until the climax, which contains some of the best lyrics ever penned by Kinsella. “Don’t worry about the money, we’ll get by or we won’t. You look better hungry, you wear your weary eyes well” he sings, providing one last somber perspective on his married life before the closing track.
“Lost” ends the record on an uplifting note, addressing an untamed youth. Lyrics such as “You’re lost, but at least you’ve nowhere to be and no one to leave you” seem to speak to an untarnished soul, fighting off the cynicism that comes with age and responsibility. As a father, Mike Kinsella has a burden to bear, a reason to come home every night rather than wander freely. There is sacrifice in love. The King of Whys does not pull punches in this regard. While it may be one of the lightest Owen records in instrumentation, its lyrical content holds significant weight. Mike has gone on record in multiple interviews saying that he enjoys being a father and that he uses his music as an outlet to vent his day-to-day frustrations, but having all of this resentment concentrated in one record makes it fairly devastating in its cynicism. Even if Kinsella is truly happy as a father, he tells the listener not to “waste your breath telling me you want what I have. No one believes you.” This, then, is the sound of a man aging unto death to the hum of a refrigerator, and nobody does it better than Owen.
The Desperate Act
Sleep Is A Myth