That old cliché works well here: if you've heard one Owen album, you've heard 'em all.
While the aesthetics of Mike Kinsella's long-running solo project have remained the same for a decade, the flavors included have varied. While his first efforts were more truly "solo" singer-songwriter fare with finger-picked acoustic guitar and his gentle vocal melodies carrying the tunes, he later started peppering in more drum set/drum machine and other lighter supplemental elements. With 2009's New Leaves he expanded his furthest yet with plenty of strings, mallet percussion and electric guitars.
He keeps that wider sonic spectrum and it serves these songs fantastically. “No Language” shows that Kinsella’s guitar skills continue to grow, and his drumming adds to the drive of the song with double-stroke hi hat fueling the bouncy beat. “No Place Like Home” uses marimba well, recalling labelmates Aloha. "Too Many Moons" has cello stabs reminiscent of Nico's Chelsea Girl. “O, Evelyn” has downright gorgeous sustained string section chords and some tasteful pizzicato as well.
On “An Animal” there is a significant push for something different: minor key plucking on acoustic and electric, awesome cello lines, bongos. But it’s “I Believe” that’s the most epic Owen song yet, growing from acoustic strums and piano interjections up to roaring electric and back within its six-minute time frame. From the hushed and glorious group vocals of "Hallelujah / I just found Jesus" at the beginning to an honest-to-goodness toe-tapper of a backbeat in the final minute, “I Believe” is the most dynamic and engaging song that Kinsella has ever written. “Mother’s Milk Breath” ain’t no slouch neither, growing over five minutes to a coda of cascading guitar squalls, enveloping the gentle plucks and piano patterns almost completely.
Lyrically, Kinsella is back to his old tricks, less content here than on New Leaves. That album found him married and a happy new dad. But as an emo kid in a mature man’s body, Kinsella can’t stay away forever. "I’ll leave a note ‘To Whom It May Concern:’ / Fuck you and your front lawn," from “No Place Like Home,” for example, is a bit over dramatic, especially for his age. Then there’s the silly: "I drop kicked an old lady" from “No Language,” which is funny the first few times but doesn’t age all that well, especially in this gentle, well-arranged environment. Seems out of place.
Owen is always a pleasant listen and I find this album growing on me. While I don’t think it’s quite as strong song-wise as New Leaves, the arrangements show even more growth. If you liked that one, you’ll like this one. It’s Owen. You know what you’re gettin’.