"Now I know who I am / A house-broken, one-woman man," Mike Kinsella sings in “Amnesia and Me,” the best tune off New Leaves, which is a significant Owen release in that it’s his first full-length as a married man. As one of the most (excuse the term) ‘emo’ lyricists to emerge from the Cap’n Jazz family, how does he pen songs now about being happily married? About loving his kid?! Can he pull it off? When I was reading our massive list of lists around the New Year, I noticed many staffers were lovin’ this record, including Jesse, Mike and Scott Brown. I thought, “Oh crap, that is still sitting in my pile.” I had checked it out in September, but then it got buried. And Seth is way too cool a dude for me to do that to his releases. D’oh! So let’s get to it.
Musically, New Leaves is the best Owen record by a mile. Finally his tender pluckings are lifted above all other sadsacks’ with the help of strings, piano and electric guitars that move beyond background filler and tons o’ toys like glockenspiel. “Windows and Doorways” off of At Home with Owen can give you a glimpse into what he’s fully embraced on this record--though if you have that record you probably have this one already. “Brown Hair in a Bird’s Nest” is quite possibly the most beautiful Owen song yet music-wise, especially when the glockenspiel and piano enter, and that little bit of dissonant electric guitar goes a long way. Kinsella has stretched his arrangements out, but he never overdoes it because that just wouldn’t be Owen. The title track opens the record and we get a tasteful yet addictive melody shared by piano, guitar and glock, and then Kinsella’s trademark whisper. Gentle strings hover in the background; they go pizzicato under the verse vocals. Later on there is some awesome bowed standup bass.
“Good Friends, Bad Habits” is another standout, and while it may seem more old-school Owen focusing on acoustic guitar and synth, we still get some piano in there. There is a really great video for this song, and it’s the kind of music video I would make if my band ever had the funds (or reason) to make a music video. It looks like it was a ball to shoot because all of Kinsella’s friends and family (cute baby alert!) get to be in it, and probably helped write the funny little quips about their ‘bad habits’ (be ready to read quickly, FYI). Plus, it’s a who’s-who of venerable Chicago indie rockers from the past decade-plus. There are probably more people in here I don’t recognize, but I’m catching a few. How many musicians can you spot (i.e.: do you like good music or are you lame?)? But as much as I like this line--"They fuck like Wilde and indulge like Hemingway"--it doesn’t seem like something you would say about your friends, no matter how bad their habits; I wouldn't wish those dudes’ lives on anyone. Especially the end when he switches it to "They’ll die like Hemingway." With a self-inflicted shotgun blast? Yipes!
With all that is new about this record, there is a still a lot that remains the same. He still finds room for out-of-nowhere cursing (which really isn’t out-of-nowhere anymore), like this tasty nugget from “Never Been Born”: "I’m shitting blood and puking piss / Sweating bile and awkwardness." Start a swear jar--you've got a kid! And he still finds time to make jabs and throw judgment at others, and I wish he’d stop. “Ugly on the Inside” takes cheap shots like the ones he’s relied on for many of past tunes, and it’s ironic when he says "Honestly I don’t mind who you do or don’t tonight," when obviously he does--you wrote a song about it! He is also extremely self-conscious, with closer “Curtain Call” dissing all his dissers for some reason. "People used to pay to watch me sing and play / But it seems more and more they come to spit in my face / I’m tired of speaking up and speaking clearly / So the idiots in the back can hear me." Sure, these lines and the next part are catchy as hell and pretty, but seriously, Mike, do you care that much? Do your thing man. Then there’s silly stuff like "And I swear on my mother’s gravy" (“Brown Hair in a Bird’s Nest”), which is funny at first, but we’re over it, Mike. Aren’t we? Maybe I’m alone. Next step: fully mature record.
“Being a lot more settled has freed up space in my mind that was once occupied by frivolous romantic social interactions to be used for thinking critically about broad social interactions and issues,” he says, but clearly he still has some growing to do. "Now I know who I am / A tongue-biting, one-woman man." You’ll be better for it, Mike. Here’s to the next Owen album being even happier and more mature because I like this direction. I’m no emo kid.