On 2009's New Leaves, Mike Kinsella uses his solo project Owen to explore unintentional maturing, shifting comfort zones, and -- could it be? -- romantic contentment, if still unassured. Now married and a father, Kinsella's characteristically direct and witty observations and self-analyses examine this new stage of his life: his thirties. Introspective and revelatory throughout, in "Good Friends, Bad Habits" he admits "Sometimes/Like every time a train passes/I get jealous of the long nights/The blurred lights/The red eyes/The bar fights," before reckoning "Sometimes/Like every time she breathes/I embrace my routine." On "Never Been Born," he shares the intimate "The way your skin sticks to your ribs/The way my hips fit in your hips/I'm 18 again/Dependent like an infant/Content like I've never been." While Kinsella is still grappling, world-weary, and utterly relatable to the likewise pensive and uneasy, those who have settled into couplehood may especially connect with this collection. Musically, the arrangements are complex but understated, utilizing drums, strings, keyboards, piano, even xylophone and other melodic percussion voices over his base of guitars. "A Trenchant Critique" features rhythmic interplay between guitar fingerpicking and percussion, with strings and bass providing an overarching, almost sentimental flow to the song's flashes of memory and self-evaluation. "Never Been Born" develops into an orchestral interlude, an electric and acoustic web of droning sounds with tinkling acoustic guitar and bells. The sweet "Amnesia and Me" lays sustained strings over catchy strummed guitars and a driving rhythm section that propel momentum forward as he sings of forgetting the past. He still wields a few odd meters and time-signature changes, as in the serene, fluttering "Brown Hair in a Bird's Nest," but all gracefully arranged. Acknowledging a few somewhat graphic descriptions and swears, New Leaves is a pretty-sounding work, with relatively sophisticated and balanced sounds supporting the unusually, for Owen, romantic lyrics. On the whole, the album comes off as a good place for Kinsella; still uncertain -- "Curtain Call" complains about playing shows -- but like taking a breath and trying to enjoy the view after climbing a hill and realizing "Now I know who I am/A housebroken one-woman man." He sounds OK with it, and the music does, too.
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AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson