Review Summary: Occasionally boring but mostly gorgeous.
Owen’s music has largely been defined by a few elements. Dense yet instantly catchy guitar melodies, beautiful harmonies and vulnerable, honest lyrics. He has definitely found a formula for his songwriting, but because his songs are so lush and often have so many moving parts, they sound anything but formulaic. And his remarkable skill as a guitarist makes a lot of his solo efforts sound truly unique. On his last album however, he followed that same formula but lost his ability to craft those memorable melodies. The songs were pleasantly atmospheric but just not as catchy, and for some reason he greatly simplified his usually excellent guitar playing.
Initially, The Avalanche remedies that by combining atmosphere with memorable melodies. It strikes a much better balance between the instrumentation that makes an Owen album an Owen album, and quality songwriting. Songs in the album’s first half feature gorgeous, layered arrangements, but they’re anchored by a persistent sense of structure. Opening track “A New Muse” begins with the line “dear lord, let me be anything but bored” which is fitting since that’s pretty much exactly what I thought going into this. The simple strummed chords are layered with simple but attention grabbing melodies, before the song gives way to a classic Owen fingerpicking pattern. It’s simultaneously grand and subdued, and that’s something the album maintains throughout its first half. The second track “Dead For Days” is another example of this, as it also has a classic Owen fingerpicking pattern, but the added strings make it feel complete and fleshed out. And “On With The Show” is one of the more immediate songs on here, with an arrangement that essentially just sounds like acoustic American Football. But when the melody and production are so strong, who’s really complaining about that?
Unfortunately, the album begins losing steam a bit halfway through. It maintains the same pleasant instrumentation from beginning to end, and it’s never anything less than pleasant, but the later songs seem lacking in structure, and are much more repetitive melodically than the earlier offerings. The songs start to blend together a bit and certain sections are somewhat bland. But even the least interesting songs musically are made interesting by Owen’s candid and clever lyrics, which are darker than they’ve ever been on this album. He describes his struggles with addiction, depression and self destructive tendencies with a striking level of detail and honesty. It’s a bit disarming given how peaceful the music itself usually is. I don’t know if it’s an intentional juxtaposition, or if these are just the only kinds of melodies he can write, but either way it makes the songs even more impactful somehow.
At the end of the day, The Avalanche is an Owen album through and through. It features beautiful arrangements and excellent, introspective lyrics, but also has a bit of a tendency to meander. Ultimately however, this is a strong collection of songs from one of the most consistent folk songwriters around.