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Album Review: David Thomas Owen IV – Solace My King

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Solace My King creates a world fantastic. References to kings, snakes, Armageddon, castles, and hell hearken back to the Biblical, gothic, and wizardly. Whether speaking of the macabre keys or the reverb-heavy, timorous (but certainly not weak) vocals, David Thomas Owen IV has created a world unto itself on the album. In so doing, Solace My King represents a complex network of fears, dread, and neuroses covered intermittently with hope. Owen has created a complete work, the most complete likely to be released this year. The work represents his solo debut, but Owen is anything but a greenhorn.

Owen had been with Ohio-born Lovedrug. At the end of his tenure with the band, Owen was reduced to the alcohol and sundry substances coursing through him. “That last show was brutal,” he recalls. Touring had leveled him and so began the rebuilding process. Even while with Lovedrug, he had begun to express his creativity on the page; however, apart from the band, Owen describes a process of “cleansing” creativity that washed from him onto the keyboard and eventually, to demos on his Mac. Those tracks were “written across the States” and culminated in Montana, as Owen used a bottle of wine and stream of consciousness to purge himself of bad dreams and waking heartbreak. Owen notes that each song on what has become Solace My King was written in one sitting (with few exceptions); when the deep in him surfaced, it had to be exorcised at once. Knowing the process of Solace My King is key to understanding why it bridges the gap between creator and listener so easily.

Solace My King not only feels genuine, but it sounds genuine — and different. Categorizing it is tedious. It doesn’t fit with what’s being released currently. Owen hasn’t necessarily reinvented the wheel, but he has borrowed and co-opted wisely. As the pieces are arranged on the album, a perfunctory listen won’t reveal a paint-by-numbers patchwork of influences; however, only a dullard would miss the unmistakable warble of Jeff Buckley and unearthly falsetto of Sigur Rós. (That Owen can even be compared to Buckley speaks volumes.) Buckley and Sigur Rós are inexplicably underused as muses in 2009, and so Owen’s voice sounds fresh and otherly. Owen routinely pushes his voice into a register so high that there’s a raggedy edge to how he sings. It’s controlled — but just barely. It sounds as if at any time, the hinges might fall off. Walking such a fine line roots Solace My King in immediacy. There is no passivity in listening to Owen handle a microphone.

If Owen could play a show at a circus, he’d fit right in. It’s an accurate way to describe the carnival-esque brand of sound Owen creates. It’s vaudevillian with the shine worn off. If you get lost in a funhouse in the hall of mirrors, don’t be surprised if “Eat Dust Eat Snakes” or “Castles” is piping through the speakers just before the guy with the hockey mask and chainsaw jumps out. But even that image is not exactly spot-on, because there’s a vein of beauty woven into every bit of dread that the album produces. Solace My King might fit nicely into the soundtrack of a Tim Burton film (with apologies to Danny Elfman). With Lovedrug, Owen had handled axe duties. On Solace My King, he fashions the ethos of the album with keys — layers and layers of them.

Solace My King plays evenly. Even in the closing tracks, it produces some of its best tracks. “Eat Dust Eat Snakes” starts with whistling like something out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Owen breaks in with “Evil/It’s creeping up behind me/Tapping on my shoulder/Turn around and face it/Don’t know what to say there/Can’t be alone”. Within the larger context of the instrumentation, Owen’s description of evil is both terrifying and comforting. What does he mean “can’t be alone”? There are two possibilities: either the longer he stares, the more evil looks like a friend than an enemy, or else he is desperately seeking a companion as he tries to elude evil. Maybe it’s both, depending on the day. Nowhere is the Buckley comparison more plausible than on “Eat Dust Eat Snakes”. Owen’s voice is so vulnerable, private, and moving that headphones are required. On the closer, “Go to Hell”, Owen lets loose. It’s a winding track of vocal reverb and un-dampened piano.

Lyrically, Solace My King is easily accessible, but still hazy to understand completely (which extends its shelf-life indefinitely). “Find Another World” has the repeated refrain “Find another girl, and you say this is easy.” As Owen has said, “It’s a girl song,” but this breakup song mines that dismembered-heart feeling in each verse. “They Will Eat You Alive” speaks of the record business rat race, but with lines like, “Dust, you’re turning to dust/To me, that’s no way to be” and others, it builds curiosity as to whom exactly Owen is speaking. Maybe it’s the whole lot, or maybe certain lines have specific targets. It’s this obfuscation that makes Owen’s stories interesting. “Knives” bears the attention grabber “On a Sunday morning, we read in the paper she’s dead/‘What happened,’ we screamed at the ceiling/‘Oh my God, what is happening here?’” Later Owen croons, “Here I come/I sneak up behind you/I raise the knife to the sky”. What’s with the shift from observer to perpetrator? The line still intrigues me after months of listening.

I finagled my hands onto the original demos of Solace My King back in 2008. The songs steamrolled me then. But even after hearing the songs uncountable times, they’ve not only kept their gravitas, but have continued to inhabit whatever you’d like to call it: the soul, the psyche, the part of the brain that houses the deep in us all. Using “I” is imperative with an album such as Solace My King. Collections such as this speak to some greater longing, to the spiritual, to the person. Speaking of my own “I”, not one album in a year may give me such pause. Solace My King arrested me such that I listened straight through those original demos twice (was it three times?) in one sitting, frozen. Lovedrug was a moderately enjoyable rock band, while this… this was something else entirely.

I was lucky enough to speak with David Thomas Owen IV (or “Dave” to the layperson) before writing this review. I wanted to ask, “How did you do it?”. And I did ask that question in various ways, but unfortunately, it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what “makes” an album like the one here in question. The closest I ever got to the root was when I asked Dave what influenced him the most while writing the album. Without having to think, he offered that From a Basement on a Hill had been on repeat in his headphones for some time. It clicked. Owen has grabbed the complexity that Elliott Smith was able to access so easily. So often, artists mistakenly copy Smith’s sound, thinking that’s what will give them credibility, but that was never the case. It was in the connection of shared emotion that Smith buttered his bread. Owen nails this on Solace My King not by stealing a set of musical signatures (though Basement shares King’s circus-y sound), but by creating a place where heartbreak, self doubt, and cracks show truly.

When recording “Find Another World”, Owen said he visualized a teenager who’d just had his guts kicked in by a girl he loved. He visualized that kid with the headphones on, alone with the song, trying to hold it all. That was his audience: a boy and a wound. David Thomas Owen IV is also a boy with a wound, bringing it all to bear on a record that will find its mark on many boys and girls with an array of wounds and blemishes; all the while, Solace My King will stand woundless and unblemished among them.

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Solace My King Album Review: David Thomas Owen IV   Solace My King

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