Christopher Owens has been praised as one of his generation’s shining talents, and with good reason. Father, Son, Holy Ghost – the 2011 opus of Girls, the band Owens somewhat abruptly left late last year – was an astonishing synthesis of classic rock revivalism, technical prowess and unashamedly direct, borderline-cliché-but-never-lame lyricism. You could hear everything from the Eagles to Spiritualized; the album arced from the wide-eyed, juvenile “Honey Bunny” to the grimy backstreet catscratching bell-toll of “Vomit,” a song whose last-minute apotheosis may or may not reestablish your relationship with a Higher Power.
Owens’ departure from Girls came as a shock to most, but much of the disappointment evaporated with the announcement of a solo effort: Lysandre. Billed as a thematic narrative following Owens during Girls’ first tour in 2009, culminating in a short-lived but passionate affair with the Frenchwoman who lends her name to the title, it’s a record that only Owens could make and one that only he, with his trademark blend of downright pretty instrumentation and overwhelmingly earnest lyrical style, could hope to pull off.
No time is wasted: “Lysandre’s Theme” opens the record and introduces us to the refrain that threads through most of the following songs: a stately, somber succession of classical guitar and flute that trills out hopefully in the end. It’s familiar instrumentation to Girls fans; part of Owens’ charm on FSHG was his ability to sneak otherwise eye-roll-inducing sounds into songs with precisely the right degree of restraint (remember those woodwinds in the culmination of “Die”?). Well – it’s the lack of restraint that, now, seems to most separate a Girls song from an Owens song: Lysandre is composed of many of the same sonic waypoints and embellishes as, say, “Just a Song,” but revels in their excess to the point of failure. What once was novel and incisive becomes merely twee.
Meanwhile, Owens’ prowess as a musician goes unblemished. He’s an excellent guitarist and pop craftsman: “Here We Go Again” is sockhop rock at its finest, and “New York City,” for all its saxophone conceit, is irresistible. He’s at his most interesting, though, in “Riviera Rock,” a lustful verseless jazzy interpretation of “Lysandre’s Theme” that effortlessly merges saxophone, piano, chimes, punchy drum fills and guitar leads, swirling like dancers on a Mediterranean beach.
All of which makes Owens’ missteps that much worse. In “Love is in the Ear of the Listener,” he worries “What if I’m just a bad songwriter and everything I say has been said before?” It’s a universal fear that every artist of every kind grapples with. But like all of Owens’ lyrics, that blunt, youthful questioning needs to be reinforced with music that abolishes the question’s relevancy in order to strip his words of their naïveté. When he asks “What if people are sick of hearing love songs?” with nothing but the balladry of fingerpicked acoustic guitar notes to hang onto, his hypothetical question becomes uncomfortably immediate. When, in the next song, he proclaims “Kissin’ and a-huggin’ is the air that I breathe” as the ever-present flutes draw rainbows across the sky, the question becomes downright urgent. Answer: No one will ever get sick of Love Songs – they’re an essential product of the thing we call the human condition. But it’s easy to get sick of these.