Chicago multi-instrumentalist Mike Kinsella has wowed fans for decades with both unique playing in any number of his bands (Joan of Arc, American Football, Owls, etc.) and his usually more evocative, stripped-down songwriting with solo project Owen. Since the early 2000s Kinsella has turned out softy confessional, vaguely emo material under the Owen name, with emphasis on angular ringing guitar lines and an understatedly dry sense of humor in his lyrics. With seventh album L'Ami du Peuple, Kinsella dons most of the caps that he's worn throughout Owen's lengthy tenure, touching on fingerpicked guitar sentimentality, introspective songwriting, and the jerky post-rock drumming and high-volume arrangements that characterize some of his other bands. The album also benefits from the outside production of Neil Strauch, shedding some of the home-recorded feel of previous efforts, especially on louder rockers like the terse "Bad Blood," which moves from jagged off-time post-rock rhythms into full-on metal guitar leads and an uncomfortable crescendo of dissonant vocal harmonies. Kinsella's lyrics are often buried in the amiable arrangements, but when they peek through they're remarkable in both their wit and profundity. "A Fever" sees Kinsella spelling out the details of a violent stomach flu, and it's not clear by the end if the somewhat gross lines are a relationship metaphor or not. Elsewhere in the gently droning front-porch guitar two-part couplet of "Where Do I Begin"/"Vivid Dreams," he reflects on his life with lines as goofy as "I'm fat and I'm drunk and you love me/The kids are a little weird but they're happy" and as piercing as "I'm a dad and my dad's dead" as a rambling open-tuned guitar pushes the song along. L'Ami du Peuple feels like Owen's "full circle" record, encapsulating both the sense of impassioned youth found on his earliest records and the more wizened feelings about family and growing older found on records like 2009's New Leaves. The result is the most varied and colorful album under the Owen moniker, one that feels free of self-consciousness or self-imposed limitations. A sense of excited satisfaction runs through L'Ami du Peuple, finding a still curious and motivated Kinsella a little bit older, but learning new things all the time and coming up with some of his best songs yet.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas