In order to talk about this album, it’s impossible for me not to talk about everything that I love about Mike Kinsella. Mike Kinsella is Owen. He plays every instrument and writes and sings every song. He’s been in massively important, formative bands since he was in 8th grade (look up the band Capn’ Jazz, Mike was the drummer when he was 12 years old!). If you’re interested at all in indie rock (in general), math rock, emo, you’ve probably crossed musical paths with Kinsella in some way. Mike’s older brother Tim fronts legendary avant-garde art rock outfit Joan of Arc (he was also the lead vocalist of Capn’ Jazz when he was in high school). Mike has played and sang for math rock band Owls, played drums for the band Their/They’re/There, and, most importantly for indie rock, he is the lead singer and one of the guitarists for indie/emo legends American Football (one of my favorite albums of ALL TIME, if you haven’t heard their self-titled album from 1999 do yourself a favor and do that right now). So, you couldsay that I have a pretty hugely biased opinion of Mike Kinsella. I have almost everything he has done (at least as a singer) on vinyl and have been collecting his records since I was 15 years old.
The songs on The King of Whys are insular, self-immolating reflections on not being sure how to make tomorrow work, on running out of gas, on the endless appearance of crossroads that don’t solve anything (more reminiscent tonally in some ways to earlier Owen albums like At Home With Owen (2006) and I Do Perceive (2004)). S. Carey (well known for his vocal work and instrumentation in Bon Iver) does some inspired production work for this album and was clearly influenced by his work with Kinsella on his newest album, Hundred Acres (2018). S. Carey does a terrific job of highlighting the kinds of choices that make every Owen album work: shimmery guitar layering, the subtle waves of a string section, the perfectly timed crunchy solo. Ultimately, this is a sad, lonely, beautiful album they demands multiple listens. Track highlights include: “The Desperate,” “Tourniquet,” “An Island,” and “Lost,” but there’s not a snoozer on this whole album.
Is this the best Owen record? Probably not. That being said, he’s been releasing one every couple of years for almost 20 years, so there’s quite a list. I selected this record as a good introduction to Kinsella’s solo project because it’s 1) probably in my top 4 Owen albums 2) it’s the most recent and 3) it’s a good entry into his world-weary, morose, and typically witty lyrical style. While others Owen albums in my top 4 list focus on the particulars of Kinsella’s melancholy, Ghost Town (2011) (likely my favorite Owen album) heavily focuses on the narcolepsy and utter spiritual exhaustion of being a new parent (Kinsella even discusses in an interview how much of the production was done learning to deal with different sleep schedules as a parent) as well as the even heavier themes of faith, death, and the disintegration of the self. L’Ami Du Peuple (2013) (another favorite) digs deeper into this theme, this time reflecting on the effects of parenthood on a marriage, dreams of escape, and vainly attempting to recapture the romantic sparks of an earlier adult life. On The King of Whys all of these themes are present, but the microscope is mainly back on Kinsella.
The album closer “Lost” (one of the best tracks on the album) is perhaps the best thesis in his catalogue for Kinsella’s lyrical style. The song, a quiet reflection on letting go of the drunken, transient lifestyle of “the last” of his “feral friends” in exchange for a more stable, but perhaps less exciting life as a parent (and touring rock star, but I guess we’ll ignore that?), ends with the heart-rending and possibly most Kinsella-esque line of all time: “Don’t waste your breath telling me you want what I have/no one believes you.” It’s moments like these that make Mike Kinsella one of the most authentic lyricists in the game today. His work reminds us that even musicians and artists, the poster children of supposed American “counter-culture,” deal with all the same daily issues as everyone else.
Suggestions for further listening: American Football– American Football, American Football LP2– American Football, Hundred Acres– S. Carey, A Whole F@#$ing Life of This- American Pleasure Club, Ixora– Copeland