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  • Writer's pictureKarl Blakesley

ALBUM REVIEW: Owen - The Falls of Sioux

Mike Kinsella continues to set a gold standard with his latest opus

He’s the undisputed Godfather of Midwest Emo and throughout his 30+ year career, Mike Kinsella is still yet to make a bad record. But whilst his discography across his various projects remains consistently flawless, you could go further and argue that over the last decade, he’s even produced his very best work to date. From the two incredible American Football sequel albums to his last solo outing, The Avalanche, through to the experimental wonderment of last year’s masterpiece, Lies, Mike’s recent creative output would give even his seminal early albums a run for their money. Now back with his 11th Owen record, The Falls of Sioux, I’m pleased to say Mike is continuing to set a gold standard with his latest opus.

With Mike and cousin Nate Kinsella exploring new sonic territory at every corner on their

magnificent self-titled collab album Lies - the record I named as my Album of the Year for 2023 - I did wonder how that would impact his music going forward. I didn’t have to wait long for my answer, as lots of the elements unlocked on that record have been brought to the table again here, with Mike utilising orchestral strings, electronic synths and dreamy shoegaze aesthetics in a way he hasn’t previously on other Owen projects. There’s also more personnel involved, with regular co-producers Sean Carey and Zach Hanson returning (Bon Iver, Low, Waxahatchee), but with Now, Now’s KC Dalager on backing vocals and a whole host of other musicians joining Mike in the studio too. It all only further enhances the Mike Kinsella experience, with these new sonic textures and the additional creative input elevating this stunning collection of songs.

However as ever, it’s the beautiful contrast of Mike’s brutally honest poetry against these gentle, stirring arrangements that remain the biggest draw. Where previous effort, The Avalanche, saw him battling through the turmoil of divorce, loss and grief, here, he seems to be emerging out of the other side, with his inimitable wit and turn of phrase sharper than ever at points. Whilst there is still very much devastation and self-loathing, there is now also humour and reflective self-acceptance, which is great to hear. With all this set against twinkling acoustic strums and plenty of orchestral grandeur, it’s the audio equivalent of a sunrise appearing on the horizon after a long and dark night.

This tone for the record is set straight away with arguably the album’s best track - opener 'A

Reckoning'. Beginning with a Western Americana twang and some dramatic tubular bells, it's brilliantly reminiscent to the opening of a Breaking Bad episode, which feels thematically on point. When Mike’s voice eventually comes in, he welcomes the listener with one of the best opening verses he’s ever penned: “The suitcase still smells like the thrift store I saved it from, big enough to hold all my shit and then some, at 21. But now in my 40s, I travel with much more dirty laundry.” As the bluesy instrumentation then bangs and crashes around him, it immediately puts the listener into his mindset for this record, sentimentally and regretfully looking back on his life but this time with more of a wry smile as he writes. It’s simply an incredible start to the record and an immediate favourite within Mike’s expansive discography.

The Godfather of Midwest Emo: Mike Kinsella, AKA Owen (photo credit: Alexa Viscius)

It’s an impossibly high standard for the rest of the record to follow, but Mike shows he’s up to the challenge. Gorgeous lead single 'Beaucoup' is out next, with shuffling drums, cooing vocals and soft tides of electronics. More recent single 'Hit and Run' then offers some understated, string-tinged chamber pop, before Cursed ID’s jazz-like plucking backs Mike’s description of his “drunk Billy Bragg” impression. 'Virtue Misspent' then rounds off a towering first half with glistening synths, soothing vocal harmonies and some quiet spoken word, which all help soften the lyrical cynicism around love and destroyed relationships.

Into the back end of the record and Mike continues to not spare a single second, with the brilliantly titled 'Mount Cleverest' producing apathetic sentiments backdropped to a bluesy, Radiohead-esque vortex. 'Qui Je Plaisante' (which translates to Who Am I Kidding) sees a remorse-filled Mike asking: “Just tell me how this ends – I’m forgiven, I’m forgotten, I’m forsaken?” It’s one of the most beautifully devastating moments on the record, as Mike recounts his “cautionary tale” to a dreamy, gentle waltz of an arrangement. Then, after the gentle stomp and swirling strings of 'Penny', the album gets a majestic U2-inspired finale, as rumbling drums, distant horns and more glorious strings bring a sense of triumphant liberation on closer, 'With You Without You'.

It seems that every time I go into a new Mike Kinsella record with a heightened sense of anticipation and yet, even with my own impossibly high expectations, he still manages to blow me away every single time. With The Falls of Sioux, he’s delivered an exquisitely arranged and refreshingly honest introspection, one that perfectly balances the melancholy with dashes of laughter and charm along the way. It’s the sound of a one-of-a-kind artist in the absolute prime of his career and I can’t help but feel its only going to get better from here. Mike Kinsella, long may he reign!

Rating: 9.5/10

The Falls of Sioux is out tomorrow (26 April) via Polyvinyl Record Co

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