For many winter recreation enthusiasts, there’s nothing more peaceful than snowshoeing or backcountry skiing through a mountainous area covered in fresh powder. Inhaling crisp alpine air, viewing the stark contrast of green pine needles bursting through puffs of white, feeling one’s thighs burn while breaking trail... all sensations that lure the adventurous to remote, peak-enshrined valleys. Seasoned cold-weather explorers know that, at any time, this serene silence might collapse. What was once still may suddenly be obliterated by a fast-falling mass of ice and snow.

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

While avalanches can have a positive impact on the environment, how they affect people is usually disastrous. Traveling at speeds as fast as cars on the open highway and accumulating rocks, trees  and other debris as they cascade, avalanches can demolish most human-made structures. Although survival is possible for anyone caught in the destructive path, moving quickly is of utmost importance: after two hours, the Utah Avalanche Center claims, there are usually no survivors. Of those that aren’t lifted from the snowpack, which can be as heavy as concrete, the BBC estimates 90% likely triggered the event themselves.

Mike Kinsella wasn’t aware of these facts until I mentioned them during our interview; however, he does know that an avalanche’s aftermath forever changes the landscape of whatever it contacts. Explaining his choice for the title of his solo project Owen’s tenth studio album, Kinsella says, “…one second before the event, life was one way, and then one second after that event, life is another way.” He continues, “My idea of an avalanche is that you don’t see it coming until it’s too late, and then at that point you’re either dead or you have a completely different life.” 

Kinsella’s songwriting always tends toward the personal, even if he does view Owen as a persona distinct from his work in other bands and projects, like American Football. While familial trauma and struggles with sobriety haunt the LP, The Avalanche in question is Kinsella’s failed marriage. Lyrically, he grapples with the before and after, existentially drifting between two key sentiments: “I should have predicted this” and “what do I do now?” Kinsella also accepts some blame in creating the vibrations that shook the mass lose, even if he isn’t quite ready to change his behavior. Instead, he seeks solace alone in a bar, ruminating.  

Musically, the album is gorgeous, featuring shimmering yet subtle string arrangements, French horns, sleigh bells and glockenspiels that contrast Kinsella’s lonesome guitar riffs and vocals. These instrumental decisions are deliberate, Kinsella tells me, his stated intent being to create juxtaposition. In referencing one of the record’s crudest moments, the line “I can’t have my cake and fuck it, too,” Kinsella walked me through how he chose the “playful and lush” instrumentation to create counterpoint. Referring to whoever would utter that blunt line as an “asshole,” Kinsella reveals how placing the music on top of those lyrics establishes contrast. The listener is torn between dismissing the line as a barroom joke in poor taste or accepting it as earnest wisdom from someone who has just had their heart ripped out and stomped on. That several reviews go back and forth between hailing this as the album’s most brilliant moment or where the point where it all breaks down provides, to Kinsella, evidence that his choices work.

There are many such moments on The Avalanche where the mind exclaiming, “Did he just say that?” comes into conflict with the heart (by way of the ears) noting, “This is absolutely beautiful.”  Such tension expertly captures an avalanche; musically, the album is like viewing the white river plummeting from a distance while lyrically, it’s akin to standing right below as the full force encloses you in an icy coffin. Together, the effect is nothing short of sublime. 

Bandbox is excited to offer Owen's The Avalanche on exclusive black & white splatter vinyl and American Football's LP3 on "marble pink sunset"! Limited to 500 copies each and shipping in March 2022, they arrive along with a double-sided, 16-page zine covering both Owen and American Football, featuring interviews, beautiful photos and more.