It’s difficult to write good music that ventures outside the boundaries of traditional popular music. Popular music, on the other hand, is relatively easy to write. Since popular music deals in chord sets and forms that exert a proven visceral pull on the listener, it has a built-in direction and clarity. This is part of what makes it popular music. Of course, there is that special kind of musician that aspires to greater heights (“high art” if you will), and when a musician goes down that path, they inevitably run into that most terrible problem of all problems, The Problem of New Music.
The Problem of New Music is actually a set of twin problems. The first is a problem in experimentation – the musician has to find new forms of song construction that deviate from the old ones. The second is a problem in purpose – the musician has to wield the new forms in such a way that moves the listener enough to make the act of listening worth the time. The history of music is filled with the graves of projects that failed to solve The Problem of New Music. In fact, most attempts at solving it are failures, and Two, the latest effort from Owls (on Polyvinyl), is no exception.
Two fails in some very classic ways. As a musical experiment, the album treads along a familiar oblique style, intentionally avoiding pop progressions in favor of a shifting pastiche of 7 chords, gestured at by competing guitar figures. It’s a nice technique, generating a kind of kaleidoscope effect and it sits comfortably outside of the traditional popular music realm. However, it’s not exactly new and more importantly the group fails to do much with it, going full bore with the same trick on almost every single song. The few instances where they deviate from the restrictive formula are a relief – in particular, the beginning of “The Lion”, the ending of “Oh No, Don’t…” and “A Drop of Blood”.
Lyrically, vocalist Kinsella dives head first into what I’ll call “fashion lyricism” – just enough abstractness to suggest artistry and just enough vagueness to suggest depth. It’s a typical trap for lyricists because it allows listeners to infer artistry and depth without actually hearing it in the lyrics. Take “The Lion…” (“The lion at its trainer at the circus… / But me I’m not Lion / Not Self Not World Not Spirit / Not Meaning Not Feeling / But Moon”). Is there a deep or substantial meaning? Sure, it’s possible I guess. The lyrics could mean just about anything. But when lyrics can mean just about anything, it means that the lyrics are taking a back seat to mere assertion. Kinsella can assert that the lyrics mean whatever he wants, but if this is the case then the lyrics themselves aren’t doing any actual work.
That said, Kinsella does manage to deliver a few poetically tasteful lines in “Ancient Star Seed” (“We’ve never had nice stuff. We’d never own a nice thing. And we’ve never been friends with anyone with nice stuff”), and “A Drop of Blood” (“A drop of blood in water appears to blossom”). There is certainly a palpable level of talent that indicates the potential for a good record.
The end result is a project that seems dissatisfying on a number of fronts. It is both a timid musical experiment and a relatively directionless one at that. Of course, the band should get credit for tackling The Problem of New Music. It is a monster of a problem, and it’s no shame that they didn’t succeed.