A playful yet challenging listen - one that requires attention and patience in order for its full splendour to be revealed
It’s officially the first month of 2024 and so it seems oddly fitting that my first review of the year should be a new project from one of the artists who made the standout record of my 2023. Indeed, the last time I was sat writing about Nate Kinsella’s musical output was only last month - when I was naming his album Lies, created alongside his cousin and American Football bandmate, Mike Kinsella, my Album of the Year for 2023.
Now back with his fifth solo album under his Birthmark guise, Nate has delivered yet another sonically adventurous record - one that this time primarily explores and
reflects on his journey into fatherhood.
Much like his recent work as LIES, Birth of Omni is a playful yet challenging listen - one that requires attention and patience in order for its full splendour to be revealed. But granted time, you may just find yourself mesmerised by Nate’s kaleidoscopic world, where his vocals frequently shapeshift from the demonic to the divine thanks to some trippy vocal distortion.
Similarly to the LIES record, a kitchen sink of instruments can be found here too, with multi-instrumentalist Nate using strings, synths, guitars, harps - even that infamous kazoo from the LIES track 'Broken' makes another subtle appearance at one point. However, what holds this myriad of sounds together is Nate’s expert songcraft, with each track segueing into the next as he lyrically describes his hopes and fears for his newborn daughter, whilst also unpacking his role as both a husband and a father.
It begins with 'Snowflake In My Palm (Not For Long)', where Nate quite bluntly shares his own inner monologue following the arrival of his new daughter, singing: “Is your life my suicide? Is your life what keeps me alive?” He presents this contemplation through warped, ghostly vocals, which become a trademark across the album for some of his darker, more anxious thoughts. However, the instrumentation always keeps things light, with gentle soft chimes illuminating the magic of the moment he became a dad for the first time.
From there the album continues following those early childhood years, and the contrasting feelings of both joy and terror that can come with being a parent. No track showcases this better than 'Butterfly', which begins with childish chuckles and more twinkly instrumentation as Nate describes his laughing daughter chasing a butterfly in their backyard. However, the sinister warped vocals quickly return as he imagines her grown up, the innocent game of chase replaced with her potentially fleeing from a toxic man. The music once again remains light and uplifting though as he keeps the song filled with hope, the track eventually metamorphosing into a glorious string-tinged symphony in the back end. Definitely an early highlight.
'Birthday (Product of Our Lust)' then perfectly captures the chaos of a children’s birthday party, with siren-like synths, more devilish vocals, ominous strings and strutting guitars. By the time it ends in more childish laughter, you’re left wondering if the whole thing was indeed a party for your ears or just an utter cacophony for five minutes – I think the correct answer is probably somewhere in the middle which, given what the track is about, feels by design.
Recent single 'Rodney' then takes a brief thematic detour, as Nate opens up about his own sexuality as he describes a long-lost crush he once had over a male co-worker. Again, the soaring strings steal the show, aided by thumping heart-like drums and some funktastic guitar distortion. Following this, we’re then treated to a delightful cover of 'Baby Woncha Come on Home' by Joan Armatrading with Arone Dyer guesting on vocal duties and doing a wonderful job.
Examining his innermost thoughts as a parent in a cruel world: Nate Kinsella (photo credit: Tom Medvedich)
It then transitions seamlessly into 'Boyfriend' which sounds like it may have been inspired by American Football’s support slot for The 1975 at Finsbury Park last year, with a soulful, plucky groove and more chameleonic vocal distortion evoking the trademark sounds of the Manchester quartet.
It highlights once again the diversity with which Nate creates, with each song here really giving the listener a different sonic flavour, whilst also keeping the continuous narrative going. It’s a balancing act that few artists pull off, but Nate’s veteran experience keeps it all in ordered disorder.
After short interlude 'Green Skies', Nate then grapples with how the arrival of a child can impact a romantic relationship on lustful lead single, Red Meadow. Just shy of seven minutes, it feels like the album’s centrepiece - an atmospheric synth-pop track that it is driven forward by a deliberate stomp of drums and some wispy auto-tuned vocals. As he sings: “I belong to you and you belong above me”, the song eventually erupts into a mesmerising array of fluttering strings. Without a doubt, one of the record’s biggest highlights.
Before you know it, the album soon reaches its climax, starting with the transcendent penultimate track 'I’m Awake'. With lullaby-esque chimes, more rich layers of orchestral instrumentation and an explosion of heavenly vocals, the final minute in particular is just blissful.
On closing track 'Pretty Flowers', the listener is then circled back to the contrasting light and dark imagery that was prevalent on the opening few songs. Primarily held up by acoustic guitars, it’s a tribute to his children that also carries some sinister undertones, as gunshot fire heartbreakingly cuts through the noise of screaming children at one point, immediately followed by a pause of deafening silence.
It is an honest, painful reminder of an increasingly bleak and dangerous world, with Nate’s provocative words “I’m teaching a baby to walk now, but someday she’s gonna run” only further hammering the message home. There is a hint of hope in the track too, emphasising to the listener that the change starts with humanity itself.
Overall, this another hugely imaginative record from Nate Kinsella, who builds on the boundless world he unlocked with LIES to openly share with the listener some of his deepest thoughts and feelings. It is admittedly an indulgent album at times, with Nate writing, recording, producing, mixing and even mastering the album by himself, ensuring he has total control over this deeply personal vision.
As a result, you do get the impression that the primary audience for this album is Nate
himself, which will no doubt turn off some listeners. But to any parents out there who may find themselves in Nate’s shoes, sharing some of the emotions he presents here, or indeed anyone simply interested in hearing him relay his parental journey in his own uniquely artistic way, you will find your patience greatly rewarded.
It’s an album made by and made for Nate but give it time, and it may well be an album for you too.
Birth of Omni is out on Friday (19 January) via Polyvinyl Records