Mike Kinsella is a seasoned music survivor. After making it through the break-ups and make-ups of a variety of seminal Illinois emo and folk bands (namely Cap N’ Jazz and American Football) since 1987, he’s now been releasing records under the solo moniker Owen for twelve years. Perhaps the key to his longevity is within the particular brand of raw, often agonizingly intimate nature of his output, in that it’s clear this survival is largely ensured through the music itself, and its cycles of crisis, confession and catharsis.
This is emo in the literal sense of itself, free of mid-2000s associations: emotional music, with Kinsella’s typically serene, tender vocals delivering tales punctuated by the strains of romance, anxiety about youthful naivety and fatherhood, and most particularly with this latest record, fears surrounding life and death. Even every instrument present here is finely tuned to pluck at the heart strings as much as possible, from the predominant acoustic guitar, to the plethora of violin strings and even the melodica of ‘Coffin Companions’.
Indeed, for Kinsella himself the instrumentation is the key site of creativity and the draw of intrigue to the record, and he has heralded the release of L’Ami du Peuple as a chance to expand his palette, with tracks such as ‘Blues to Black’ and ‘Bad Blood’ encompassing a renewed propensity for electric guitar-based ruckus that had grown more subdued over the last decade. Even with this proviso in place though, there is a definite sense of an essential comfort zone of one man and his guitar, and on the former track especially, the new instrumental excursions can often feel more like a segue, a short, relatively unchallenging but nonetheless compelling release of energy before a return to more quintessentially subdued fare.
This is not necessarily a criticism though, even if it does feel disingenuous to term the album a sonic sea change, as the presence of a clear self-awareness of where his strengths lie in order to best express his weaknesses feels particular vital. ‘Love Is Not Enough’ for example, is a spare and brutally frank treatise on the trials and tribulations of marriage, but it’s the delicately poised final track that is perhaps the most devastating instance of Kinsella’s capacity for intense expression. Whilst elsewhere some of the lyrics flirt with the inadvertently cringeworthy, twee, or trite (“Here lies the King and Queen of the Self-Medicated” from ‘Coffin Companions’ completes the bingo-card of teen-melancholy jackpot, by instigating the ground-swallow-me-up sensation of falling up an escalator on the tube), the lyrics of ‘Vivid Dreams’ are masterfully heart-rending. The gut-punch simplicity of lines like “How long have I been sleeping? / I’m a dad and my dad’s dead”, somehow capture and conjure the ultimately inescapable and universal sensation of life catching up with you, of change sneaking up from behind and turning worlds upside down, of being overcome by the shock of what has been lost and what has yet to be found dawns.
It’s a brilliant track to end a highly accomplished record on, both encapsulating the predominating mood of the melancholy that accompanies maturation, but also holding at its very core an open-hearted warmth that comes with a shared counting of blessings.