All songs bleed a sense of place, though with some the wound is deeper and fresher than with others. The exact location of that place tends to vary based on the eye (or ear) of the beholder, but it’s hard to imagine Mike Kinsella’s songs bleeding anything other than Chicago, the city he’s called home for most of his adult life. Playing under the moniker of Owen on his 2011 album Ghost Town, Kinsella mused, “There’s no place like home for collecting burdens/ And conjuring ghosts that don’t know they’re dead.”
The Chicago of Kinsella’s imagination is a city of ghosts as much as it is one of living, breathing people. To listen to his last album of original material, 2013’s L’Ami du Peuple, is to hear a man struggling to separate the past from the present. “How long have I been sleepin’?/ I’m a dad and my dad’s dead,” he sings on closer “Vivid Dreams”, a song that conjures the cold monotony of walking home down Milwaukee Avenue after the bars close, each crunching step another reminder of the passage of time.
Of course, to really find out who you are — as a songwriter, as a man about to turn 40, as a person full-stop — sometimes you’ve got to get the hell away from the place that keeps reminding you who you’ve been. That seems to be what Kinsella has done for his new album The King of Whys, spending 18 days in the dead of winter at April Base Studios in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a place that already has its own king of sorts in Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Not counting American Football’s self-titled debut, recorded during Kinsella’s college years in Urbana, The King of Whys is the first album he has recorded outside of the Chicagoland area.
This album is no lonely retreat into the woods, however. Owen has more help here than he’s ever had, continuing the logical expansion of his sound by bringing in a troupe of Wisconsin-based musicians. The lush sonics of The King of Whys are a far cry from the lo-fi stylings of his 2001 full-length debut, but they seem a natural fit; Kinsella’s warm fingerpicking has always had a way of filling space and creating even more of it, and the added instrumentation fills those gaps with an atmosphere appropriate for each composition.
Lyrically, Owen remains as confessional as ever, lingering on life’s uncomfortable questions in a way that reads like emo for people who grew out of emo 20 years ago. Album opener “Empty Bottle” has a kind of double meaning; it evokes the Ukrainian Village rock club where Kinsella has spent many a Chicago night, but it also dips into the depression that tends to fester after one too many $3 Lone Stars. “Empty Bottle/ Reflective window/ What is it that you hope to see?” he sings against a back-and-forth chord progression that’s almost, but not quite, atonal.
Much of The King of Whys is similarly reflective, and much of it is similarly stingy with easy, one-line answers. The overlaying guitar melodies and wandering vocals on “Settled Down” recall another Chicago songwriter, Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It., though there’s an elegiac weariness to the song that belongs to Owen alone. “I’m bored again/ Torn between giving in and getting lost for good,” he sings before the song dissolves into a mixture of tom beats and twinkly guitars. Resignation has rarely sounded this nice, this inviting.
Songs like “Lovers Come and Go” (“I meant what I said/ You’re too young to love me like you do”) and “An Island” (“Shit got heavy like my eyelids/ On a highway that won’t end”) also approach the world from the perspective of one who’s seen too many years to bother keeping track anymore. Which isn’t to say that Kinsella has stopped caring as he approaches middle age, only that he realizes now that happiness is hard work, and not the kind that can be accomplished in a three or four-minute song.
As its name implies, The King of Whys contents itself with probing life’s complexities and only arriving at more questions. On one of the album’s most affecting and personal tracks, “A Burning Soul”, Kinsella pairs a jaunty, almost country-esque guitar line with a recollection of his father’s alcoholism. “He wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a bad man,” he sings, refusing to moralize in that time-honored tradition of emo music.
Kinsella seems to think the same of himself, staring at the reflective window only to find an image that changes with every slight turn of the head. I’m doing alright, he seems to say, but I could be doing better. Now if that’s not a universal truth, you must be living in a different universe, one without cold and shit and rat-infested alleys. Kinsella’s is filled with all of the above, but it also comes with a quiet admission that some questions in life are still worth exploring. You could even call it hope.
Essential Tracks: “Empty Bottle”, “A Burning Soul”, and “An Island”