On debut Album and its follow-up EP Broken Dreams Club, Girls managed to tiptoe around a monument valley of influences — Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, the Beach Boys — while retaining a striking originality. Christopher Owens’ religious-cult background, much talked-about in the early days, was really immaterial; it was the wounded vocals, brilliantly casual lyrics and the masterful hooks that signaled Owens’ arrival into a lofty arena. Owens’s talent lay in how he reflected pop with a broken mirror: the middle-finger to rockists embodied by titling a song “Lust for Life,” the fog of distortion hanging over the sock-hop stomper “Big Bad Mean Mother Fucker,” the moment where “Laura” shifts from hangdog strummer to pristine jewel, complete with a glissando guitar solo. Like a lot of gifted outsiders, Owens came off as naïve, charming, fearless, fucked up.
Second full-length Father, Son, Holy Ghost shows that Girls has changed considerably, but the band seems at pains to admit it. For the first two songs and for a few moments elsewhere, Owens and partner Chet “JR” White show what a successful second-act Girls would sound like, but for most of the album they resort to familiar symptoms of the sophomore-slump — rehashing old ideas, misplaced pride and instrumental indulgence. The album is nothing like a career-killer, but it is a career-worrier.
First single “Vomit” encapsulates many of the failures of Father, Son, Holy Ghost. “Vomit” barely qualifies as a song, even though it seems endless at six-and-a-half minutes; it stakes its entire existence on overblown production and empty emotional language. Owens treads through long, wobbly verses made up of the repeated couplet, “Nights I spend alone/ I spend ‘em runnin’ ‘round lookin’ for you, baby,” before ascending to a throne of regal organs, thrashing guitars and cheering background harmonizers to sing the chorus of “Lookin’ for love,” as if it were a grand, all-conquering slogan. The other epics on Father, Son, Holy Ghost aren’t as tedious as “Vomit” –“Forgiveness” evolves competently from plodding to histrionic, while “Just a Song” finds the right of mix of airy and sad — but it’s not a good sign that the album has three songs nearing seven minutes or more, where the two previous Girls collections had one each.
Other problems with Father, Son, Holy Ghost stem from how Owen and White seem to have misinterpreted their own prior triumphs. Remember, Girls defaced the retro furnishings of Album and Broken Hearts Club with contemporary graffiti: Owens whined through his doo-wop choruses, planted F-bombs in his hot-rod anthems, infected his love songs with menace and egotism. But the trad-pop here comes off as painfully sincere. There’s the chirpy, robotic cleverness of “How Can I Say You Love?” and the John-Sebastian-by-numbers of “Magic.” Vocally and lyrically, Owens seems oddly neutered in these songs, lost in White’s twinkling, uber-professional production.
The first two tracks of Father, Son, Holy Ghost hint that it didn’t have to be this way. “Honey Bunny” is the sort of song Girls was expected to put on its second album. Starting out fast and snarling, the song has Owens scoffing at the girls “who could give a damn about who I am” before dropping into a half-tempo interlude devoted to his mother, praised as the only woman who loved him unconditionally. Then, while the song revs up again, Owens concludes he needs “a woman who loves me, me me me me me.” The song is the perfect sequel to “Lust for Life”; first Owens only wanted “a pizza and a bottle of wine,” now he’s older, needier, and more selfish. Second track “Alex” has the same potent combination of world-weariness and musical uplift that could have been the album’s calling card. Over a driving accompaniment, Owens waxes cynical and broken-hearted: “Alex has blue eyes, well who cares?” Unlike the rest of the album, which wants to impress you with its tidiness and obvious power, these two songs are terribly confused, and therefore much more compelling.