Review Summary: Larger-than-life rock that flatters to deceive, but sometimes it's nice to be flattered.
No matter the sound they go for, Owel always go big
. Their self-titled debut was an innovative post-rock piece, while their 2016 effort, Dear Me
saw vocalist Jay Sakong take center stage in a synth-heavy, larger-than-life sound, while 2019’s Paris
was beautifully lush orchestral rock. The Salt Water Well
is their biggest yet, seeing the band attempt to mash together every sound that they’ve attempted before, creating an absolutely colossal sound and an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. The Salt Water Well
is Owel’s most maximalist record. Even with everything that they attempt, it somehow manages to be Owel’s most cohesive record. Before, many of their albums seemed like a connection of brilliant ideas that were also loosely connected by a similar overarching sound. The Salt Water Well
does away with this style. Instead of trying different sounds in each song, Owel instead finds themselves including every possible style in every track. Miraculously they make it work, but also sacrifice a bit of what made them special in the first place.
Much of what makes The Salt Water Well
work is due to the brilliant production on the album. There are so many components to each composition and they all blend together in a complementary way, never competing with each other to become the standout moment. This isn’t a collection of songs written with strings added in after or a rock band adding synth to their music simply because it’s en vogue. Each component included seems absolutely essential to each song, every note meticulously placed in a way that doesn’t get lost in the vastness of the track. Normally an album that’s this loaded with details reveals even more with each listen. While that is certainly true of The Salt Water Well
, one of the more special things about this album is how much each of these details is readily noticeable. These aren’t so much layers as they are bricks, each piece of the sound crucial to the foundation of the song. Flourishes are perfectly timed so you have no choice but to notice them, as opposed to being Easter eggs to be found on future spins. Opening track “End” is the perfect encapsulation of this style. Its constantly changing dynamics sees a large reliance on synth and vocal effects, but there are moments of strings and pianos that pop in throughout, creating moments that add to the music as opposed to merely being additions. Normally an album this grand in scope can either become grating or fall in on itself because it tries too much. The Salt Water Well
tries just enough, knowing when to explode, but also knowing when it needs to draw back and let the small details take center stage.
However, this masterful mixture of all they’ve attempted before doesn’t come without any trade offs. Hidden beneath the grand sound are deceptively simplistic song structures. With the exception of two tracks, every single song ends with a repeated phrase that is sung over an extended outro, just begging for people to sing along. Almost every song also features an instrumental bridge about three to three-and-a-half minutes in, leading to an explosive final minute or so and slow fadeout in the last 30 seconds. The instrumental artistry hides the fact that most of The Salt Water Well
is actually pretty basic. The description of “End” in the prior paragraph could be used to describe essentially every song on the album. Even though there are no large choruses to be found, The Salt Water Well
is, essentially, sophisticated arena rock, with many songs having pop sensibilities that don’t always seem like they may track with the overall vision of the album. The predictability in the songwriting is more than balanced out by the instrumental creativity in the compositions, but these shared features do become extremely noticeable on repeated listens. As opposed to Owel’s previous albums that saw individually complex songs tied together using a similar sound, The Salt Water Well
sees a complex sound that is used across similar songs.
In spite of this, each individual track still offers more than enough on its own to justify its inclusion. At points The Salt Water Well
does threaten to blend together, with the cohesiveness of its sound becoming both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Owel manages to ride that border, finding the golden ratio of unique moments per track to make them all stand out in the overall vision they’ve created. Coming in at a crisp 38 minutes, The Salt Water Well
manages to be larger than life but digestible all at the same time. What appears to be grand may be slightly less so if one looks beneath the surface, but what’s the fun in looking for the flaws on something so shiny?