The rush is in the anticipation. The first time you hear “Night,” you don’t know it’s coming. After that, there can be no doubt. The drop that occurs halfway through Kelly Lee Owens’ Inner Song standout is expertly choreographed. Over the track’s first two minutes, elements are added in, building and building until it all bursts apart like a supernova — clanging and strobing and inwardly propulsive. “It feels so good to be alone…” she repeats during that first half, only completing the thought after the song rips itself open: “It feels so good to be alone with you.” It’s a punchline in musical form, a payoff that sounds revelatory in the moment, a feeling of transcendence that you want to experience again and again.
Owens is great at setting up these kinds of shifts: depressing to euphoric, quiet to loud. Her songs start in one place and end somewhere else. The way she layers sound is simple but not simplistic. It’s intuitive construction. Her advice to aspiring musicians is telling: “If you’re struggling to finish, go in on the details until you feel like you can’t do anymore.” Owens revels in the details. She approaches music on a micro scale — every sound teased out, variant iterations that accumulate into a larger whole. You really have to concentrate to hear all of the mechanics at work.
The songs on the Welsh producer’s sophomore album flip between moodpieces and headbangers. Album opener “Arpeggi” is an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s In Rainbows track “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” a nerdy technical deconstruction that isolates one element of the song and teases it out over five minutes. (Oddly enough, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” was also covered by Lianne La Havas just last month — “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is having a moment!) Her music is rendered in icy greyscale, made up of little twitches and pulses. Owens’ songs are subtle but they’re never boring. Even when she’s engaged in the more cerebral side of dance music — like on the slow-burning “Jeanette” or the pitter-pattering “Flow” — she grounds it in sounds cool enough that you want to revisit them, inversions and twists that make heady music something fun to interact with.
Owens has roots in indie rock music. For a time, she was a member of the fuzzy indie-pop band the History Of Apple Pie. You can sometimes hear that come through in her music, and certainly in her affection for the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, who shows up here as a featured vocalist on the droning “Corner Of My Sky,” speaking in their shared native Welsh and espousing memories about a generation gone by.
This narrative bent is new for Owens, but not entirely unexpected given her history. The songs on her 2017 eponymous debut album were dreamy smears of sound, focused on textures rather than words. But she adopts more concrete structures on Inner Song, brings her voice to front and treats it less like just another instrument and utilizes it more like a tool that has something important to say. She’s spare in her words, but what she does say counts.
These moments of narrative clarity are usually paired with the times when she goes full-tilt pop. Take the album’s most explosive moment in “On.” The song marches with a grim determination: “So this is how it must go/ And now I am moving on,” she intones. She’s lamenting the end of a relationship, but she might as well be mourning the end of the world. She uses the same trick she does on “Night,” her airy vocals repeating a phrase that gets mutated and then changed: “And now I am moving on … alone,” an extra word added for emphasis that recontexualizes the whole track. Where before Owens used primarily sonics to express shifts in mood, she’s now using words — in fact using both, in ecstatic unison.
These songs return to the idea of being alone. Like its title, Inner Song is about finding your internal voice, which can only be come out when you’re by yourself. It’s a collection of meditative bangers — reflections on learning to find your self-worth. They often purposefully conjure the apocalypse: “Melt!” samples icebergs melting; “Re-wild” is named after the process of farms growing over now that people are no longer utilizing the land. Going back to nature, going back to the beginnings of things — Owens aims to capture a stillness that can only come from the lack of other human beings. She’s not necessarily arguing for the apocalypse, but maybe life would be easier if everything were a little quieter. What would the world look like with less? Would it be a better place? Inner Song imagines a utopia where one could be more connected with oneself.
“I don’t think that there are enough positive messages when it comes to love and being alone. ‘Alone’ is seen as such a negative thing,” Owens said in a recent interview with Gold Flake Paint. “But it used to mean ‘all one.’ It was two words: All one. Whole. To be alone is to be whole. I’m not afraid to be alone, I’m not afraid to be by myself. I’m happy in my own company.” With that in mind, the aforementioned “Night” feels like a summation of what Owens is trying to accomplish. You can’t be alone with someone else; the song’s emotional payoff of “It feels so good to be alone with you” is about self-sufficiency. It turns “loneliness” into something to celebrate, that being alone shouldn’t imply an innate sadness. The rush of anticipation that “Night” evokes, which could so easily be interpreted as finding someone else, is in fact about finding yourself.
Inner Song is out 8/28 via Smalltown Supersound. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Angel Olsen’s stripped-back Whole New Mess.
• Katy Perry’s Smile, which you can read more about in our latest Week In Pop column.
• Disclosure’s guest-heavy and groovy return ENERGY.
• Ruston Kelly’s heart-wrenching Shape & Destroy.
• Knot’s nervy and rewarding post-Krill debut Knot.
• Widowspeak’s hazy and reliable Plum.
• BbyMutha’s double album Muthaland.
• Aluna of AlunaGeorge’s solo debut Renaissance.
• Samia’s sparkling and sincere debut The Baby.
• Narrow Head’s scuzzy ’90s throwback 12th House Rock.
• Blues legend Bettye Lavette’s latest Blackbirds.
• Georgia Anne Muldrow’s jazzy side project Jyoti’s new Mama, You Can Bet!.
• Half Gringa’s gorgeous Force To Reckon.
• Suburban Living’s dreamy How To Be Human.
• PHONY’s bleary and familiar Knock Yourself Out.
• Pop producer Ricky Reed’s new solo album The Room.
• Toni Braxton’s Spell My Name.
• lovelytheband’s Conversations With Myself About You.
• Jaden Smith’s Cool Tapes Volume 3.
• Atlantic Record’s At Home With The Kids children’s music compilation.
• Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia remix album with Mr. Fingers, Yaeji, Masters At Work, and more.
• Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s live album AXIOM.
• Pig Destroyer’s The Octagonal Stairway EP.
• The Avett Brothers’ The Third Gleam EP.
• Ryan Hemsworth’s Pout EP.
• Triathalon’s Sleep Cycle EP.
• Mouther’s self-titled screamo EP.