Emo kids are now emo adults, trading in lonely nights spent pining over an unrequited love for lonely nights in a silent fight with their partners. Owen‘s latest album, King of Whys, is here for those emo adults who need songs to be sad to after they’ve put their kids to bed. Owen is made up of one member: Mike Kinsella, known for being part of American Football, Owls, and Joan of Arc. This is Owen’s eighth album, but the first to be recorded outside of the Chicagoland area. Instead, this album was recorded over 18 days in Wisconsin… in rural Wisconsin in the middle of the winter. No wonder the vocals sound so sad, exhausted, and restless. Just kidding; Kinsella is just sad, tired, and restless from adulting (aren’t we all?)
This album and its subject matter makes a lot of sense once you realize that Kinsella is a married, 39-year-old father of two young children. There’s a lot about being settled but restless; being in a long-term relationship complete with long-term fights. Kinsella’s vocals are nearly spoken yet contain a lot of emotion. He sounds vulnerable, like he’s so worn from feeling all the feelings that he can’t sing any harder. It hits listeners in the feels, too: “The Desperate” is the perfect song for over-tired adults to listen to on repeat as they wallow in their failures (real or imagined.) With lines like “If this is a test, I’m failing it” and others about struggling and not fooling anyone with his efforts, it’s incredibly relatable. “A Burning Soul,” which sounds like Dashboard Confessional went soft rock/country, is a too-upbeat song about Kinsella’s father’s alcoholism and his own self-reflection. With lines about how his father was raised to “lip sync in his church choir,” there is a lot of poetry to analyze. Taught to fake it in church? I mean, come on, that’s a lot to dive into. “Lost” compares Kinsella’s settled life to the life he used to have and that of “the last of his feral friends.” “Sleep Is a Myth” has financial worries and suspects that sleep is “only for the opulent.” This is grown-up sadness.
“Tourniquet” fits the settled theme by being about a never-ending, exhausting fight between spouses where it becomes a negotiation just to have a little peace. It’s raw, it’s the kind of stuff you never want to hear from your spouse, but it’s also fairly introspective. It ties imagery and sounds of a figurative battle (rolling drums that sound like a cross between gunshots and drums to lead an infantry to battle,) to the more realistic, literal concerns; the connection is best heard on the lines “This tourniquet/ hasn’t stopped the bleeding yet/ I fear that I might lose a limb/ or my wife.”
The songs are soft, mostly featuring acoustic guitar with sparse piano, horns, and strings. Pedal steel is mixed in throughout, giving just the tiniest touch of a sad country song to these sad indie emo folk songs (except on “A Burning Soul,” which is a bit too upbeat and country-ish to fit in with the rest of the album.) There is synth mixed into a few songs: the end of “Tourniquet” has just the tiniest touch of Postal Service with the little synth mixed in at the end where the fight seems to get gentler. “Sleep Is a Myth” has an industrial sound layered under plucked guitar, making for an odd combination that really does sound like a strange dream. Though Owen is technically a solo act, Kinsella was joined by many other musicians to create this very soft but rich sound. One of the notable, yet tiny, additions was female backing vocals on a few of the songs. Given the subject matter of the album, the female vocals singing the lead vocal lines along with him signal his wife going through these things with him.
Owen really captures being a sad, emo adult. Those emo kids are still out there, changing diapers instead of their hair color, and this album will hit them in all the feels. The songs are each different enough to keep the album interesting (though “A Burning Soul” still feels a little out of place.) It’s a good album to which to be a sad adult. So wait for your partner to go to bed, grab a glass of wine, and just be sad with King of Whys into the wee hours… until you fall asleep and spill the wine on the couch, because being a sad adult is exhausting.