Let me provide a mnemonic device possibly useful as a touchstone in the coming analysis of Owls bandleader Tim Kinsella. Ready? OK: Kinsella holds his “id” at an “ironic distance.” That is to say, Owls is a concept album about how interpersonal relationships—ground zero for irrational pleasure seeking—fall apart just as easily as deconstructed art. Call it Quadrophenia goes to grad school—the postpunk meets the godfather.
Obviously Owls are barely fit to polish Pete Townsend’s Vespa, and pop pomo conceits are so mid ’90s. But Kinsella, singer-songwriter vet of Chicago’s defunct outside-emo acts Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc, possesses instincts as earnest as they are enigmatic. The trad rock trio backing him up—Cap’n Jazzers grown out of spazzing—spin idiosyncratic electric guitar and drum curlicues around his verge-of-cracking vocals. The clean-yet-intricate sound recalls Television’s jamworthiness; songs gather themselves uncertainly, slowly boiling then bubbling over.
With a dagger in one hand, mic in the other, and turgid penises for eyes, Kinsella’s self-portrait on Owls‘ cover makes no bones about the singer’s tendency toward psychodrama. In fact, he’s lampooning his muse, devoted as it is to forlorn musings. Amusing song titles—”I Want the Blindingly Cute to Confide in Me”; “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl”—serve the same purpose. “Anything I can mistake in the dark for being what I’m looking for,” goes the album’s first line, “is good enough for me.” Last line: “Nothing is without light.” Ah, redemption—that’s no joke. It’s a pro forma narrative: intellectualized detachment actually cheapened by its lack of irony, by Kinsella’s attempt to resolve the conflict between his emoting id and contextualizing ego.
So resolution never comes, and right on, because without it the album’s concept eludes easy, ahem, pseudo-academic categorization. “We fall in patterns too quickly,” Kinsella warns on “Anyone Can Have a Good Time,” sounding defeated but actually mustering his energy so that moments later he can sublimely shriek, “unname everyone . . . unname everybody,” over and over. At first I believed he was shouting, “I name everybody,” and I tingled at the accusatory tone. But more than simple catharsis, Kinsella finds freedom in anonymity. And of course, loneliness. Distance need not be ironic.
Owls play Irving Plaza September 14.