Is anyone an existentialist these days? Are there people who still believe that the individual’s identity/being can be determined solely by their volitions and actions, or do we all now subscribe to the savvy notion that these very same volitions and actions are “always already” the mere expression of the social context and its rules? It’s probable that if you’re reading this particular site, you’d be of the latter persuasion, and if you are, then you’re in good company, because it would seem that Mike Kinsella isn’t much of an existentialist either, at least not as far as L’Ami du Peuple is concerned. His seventh album under the Owen pseudonym, it finds the former member of almost every post-hardcore/math rock band in Chicago expressing a general disdain for what his own self has been denatured into by the norms, ideals, values, and aspirations received from other people, all the while notching his style of indie/folk/post-rock/emo up a level in terms of compositional sophistication and variety. With it, he rails against what he’s been transformed into by the familiars surrounding him and simultaneously complains that without these people he’d be nothing, tying these kinds of ego-negating sentiments to a matured, clinical appreciation of dynamics and ultimately producing what could be his most accomplished album to date.
But as polished as Kinsella has become as a writer, musician, and arranger, his biographical concerns from the get-go complement the assertion that a “personality” is just a hodgepodge of received opinion, inculcated dogma, and palliative fantasy. “I Got High” tells the (figurative) tale of his relationship with his old art and history teachers, who in teaching him how to paint and conceptualize, effectively instilled him with unrealizable and therefore useless ideals. Nearly halfway through the track, Kinsella notes their irrelevance by singing, “The curriculum is dated/My inspiration faded/A slow setting sun,” the lines transported by characteristically wistful strumming and similarly melancholic xylophone arpeggios. This theme of unrealistic or immaterial conceits feeds into another pervasive motif, which is that of the resulting unpredictability of his course through life, and so as the song wends towards its sparkly coda, Kinsella appropriately chimes, “There are boats leaving/ Where they go/ I don’t know.” These well-worn, perhaps even bromidic misgivings may offend anyone who expects a little more insight or originality from their lyricists, and coupled with what others may perceive as the mawkish tone of the gentle instrumentation, initial impressions of what the album has to offer have the potential to underwhelm.
This impression would be a little premature, however, since “Blues to Black” lifts the set into more ornate and penetrative territory. Beginning with gossamer pluckings in 5/4 time, the song bursts into life with gymnastic drumming, beatific harmonies, and a stream of tremolo-picked electric guitar, its shimmering peaks and troughs underlining Owen’s talent for correlating the semantics of his vocals with the movements of his versatile playing. And with these vocals, he continues the jeremiads on his alienation away from whatever (unidentified, but probably female) object of desire might actually fulfill him and towards an inherited view of things that is at bottom an obfuscation. This is evoked by the stanza, “Colors tend to fade/[…]/ I can see them with my eyes closed/ Light refracted like it once was,” which, heightened musically by a yearning xylophone, could easily be read as a self-reminder to trust more in his own inner sense of the Good, rather than in what has become for him his “outer” or received sense of the same.
Of course, these pursuits after an authentic or unadulterated persona are not the only matters that trouble Kinsella, and later in the album, his attention turns towards the kinds of relationship that he may have initially regarded as a manumission from false consciousness, bad faith, and self-estrangement. In “Coffin Companions,” he appears to characterize fidelity and matrimony as little more than a means of sedation or an elaborate way of making death seem more palatable (possibly the same thing). Its final chorus includes the sleepy affirmation, “I won’t speak until spoken to/ I won’t ask for love like the others do/ I’ll just close my eyes/And let the medicine kick in,” and in unity with a plaintive (yet very memorable) harmonica aside, it precipitates the impression that romance and marriage is just as much a submersion into a rigid and emasculating social syntax as anything else. And it’s because of the fragile candor of Kinsella’s voice, as well as the sensitively judged major-to-minor chord progression at the heart of the piece, that the song is one of the album’s most affecting pieces, despite the unassuming modesty of its construction.
This disenchantment and frustration with relationships is made all the more interesting as a thread in L’Ami du Peuple’s lyrical patchwork by the fact that later songs see Kinsella confessing to an almost pathological dependency on his significant others. “A Fever” includes such admissions as, “You fought a fever in me/ And I’m burning up/ […]/I’m in need of you,” these betrayals of inveterate sickness embodied by the springing vibrato of its central melodic figure. Yet even though the track is another example of Kinsella’s dexterity and articulateness as a musician/songwriter, with its spry 6/8 meter and skyward chorus, it does feature a brief guitar solo that — if my prejudices and perversities are any barometer of wider taste — some will find borderline misplaced and distasteful. The album does unfortunately contain a few more of these slightly unfashionable instances (e.g., “Bad Blood” wields another guitar solo, while “The Burial” is introduced by an 80s “ethereal” synth phrase), which taken together arguably detract from its overall quality and import, at least for a few short moments.
But this snipe should be counteracted by the testimony that L’Ami du Peuple is a predominantly rewarding album, despite the occasional misstep and despite its unambitious stylistic orthodoxy. The measured incrementalism of Kinsella’s arrangements, and his sympathetic vulnerability as a singer, peak through in cuts like “Who Cares?,” which consequentially layers pregnant cellos over the finespun weavings of his acoustic guitar, and also in “Where Do I Begin?,” which atop of a much brighter and more playful fingerpicking, has Kinsella wishing he could conveniently shed the impositions and pretensions of a self (“Where-oh-where does this story end?/ If it’s all the same to you/ I’ll just skip ahead”), and simply enjoy all that such a construct is supposed to deliver. And this desire, in the end, would perhaps encapsulate his whole ambivalent stance on the trappings of identity and individuality, a stance that recognizes the life they can provide, but also warns against cleaving too adamantly to any one personality, lest it obscures and drowns out possible alternatives.