Christopher Owens is something else.
He’s not exactly seduced by any single steadfast idea of ‘cool’, or for that matter any measure of classic pop or rock n roll paradigms of any kind.
This is a guy who’s been known to rock up to live performances in his pyjamas, colour his hair in any sequence of purple, gold and green, and paint his nails brightly red as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
But the former Girls frontman’s fractured androgyny is part of his overall beauty and mystique as one of the most interesting and talented songwriters of our time.
Girls’ were the epitome of Owen’s musical evolution and upbringing, bringing a baby-faced perspective to sixties and seventies revivalism. 2009’s ‘Album‘ was a startlingly retro collection of songs, sung with a breadth of honesty and intimacy that has so often been lost among the flag-bearing indie artists of recent years. His career in that band – and to get a sense of perspective here, Girls was to Owens what Tame Impala is to Kevin Parker; an exclusive solo project that involved a circus of revolving musicians around his visionary songwriting – culminated in 2011’s ‘Father Son, Holy Ghost‘, a strangely old-fashioned masterpiece of pure rock n roll alchemy, so immaculately recorded and structured, that to top it would be a Herculean feat in itself for any accomplished songwriter.
The reasoning behind the dissolution of Girls doesn’t seem very clear to anyone; not least Owens himself, who lamented the lack of a fixed band line up on tours, but then spoke of his new solo project as a wonderful opportunity to cycle through an endless array of musicians to suit his ever-changing tastes and overall approach – as if he just wanted to free himself from definition, and linger in a place from which people still struggle to categorize.
It’s also tempting to wonder whether his long-time Girls collaborator Chet ‘JR’ White hadn’t quite warmed to the idea of the ambitious concept that is ‘Lysandre‘. Regardless, the break-up of his flagship band was subsequently met with a kind of disgruntled angst from fans and critics alike – as if everyone had decided that it was definitely not the best thing for him to do, cautioning him as if he were a love child to them like parents of a rebellious teenager.
Nevertheless, it almost seems natural that Owens should come up with something as bizarre as ‘Lysandre’ to kick-start his solo-career. Let’s try and digest this concept shall we? A short (twenty-five minutes in length) love-lorn collection of songs based on a single girl Owens met five years ago whilst on tour at a festival in France.
He then structures them all in the exact same key, and uses a recurring theme melody – played on anything from flutes, to saxophone, to guitars, to harps – to pull the curtain down on almost every song. Playing like a motion picture soundtrack to some kind of long lost French romance, it’s startling to discover that all but one of the songs were written on the very same night sometime in the midst of Girls’ first European tour.
This sense of hallowing unison actually works quite well if you give Owens’ persona all of your attention and patience. And his incredibly old-fashioned, almost medieval approach begs for utmost sincerity and a simplistic, old-world yearning for love and companionship.
In ‘Here We Go’ he decrees, “If your heart is broken, you will find fellowship with me”, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. That song in particular is a fluid concoction of bizarre ingredients – jazz flutes, arpeggio guitars, harmonicas and fuzzy guitars – and is probably the album’s high point.
The almost-bonkers concept of the album never lets up throughout, and the saxophone voyeurs of ‘New York City’ work as yet another curveball to unsuspecting listeners. Quite like nothing else Owens has written, it embraces the idea of the Big Apple as a fatalist dichotomy that ultimately brims with light and wonder for someone who can find their place amongst its harsh, unforgiving streets.
‘Broken Heart’ and ‘Love Is In the Ear of the Listener’, both of which have been in circulation on the Internet for quite some time in various forms, enchant and seduce within the timbre of Owen’s heart-pouring and brittle voice. Few if any other contemporary songwriters could get away with singing, “Kissing and hugging is the air that I breathe, it always comes back to love”, and still make it sound like an honest assertion of emotional nuance – like someone who is discovering love and life for the first time.
The enchanting buzz drone guitar licks of ‘Riviera Rock’ aside, most of the songs here are more or less hard to discern from one another, but then that is more or less what Owens intended, and it’s doubtful if he would have had it consumed any other way. The album is pretty much over as soon as it has begun, and whilst Owen’s sense of experimentation and adventure is what keeps him so convincingly against the grain and unique time and time again, ‘Lysandre’ is something that is hard to fully put into context upon first listen.
One thing is for sure though, Owens is far from boring, and Girls fans and indie starlets alike will no doubt be enthralled by the focused persistence of his vision, and the irresistible intimacy that he pours into his work; lending his songs to drip with a level of emotion and feeling that ignites even the most recycled clichés of rock and roll folklore.
Hopefully next time however, Owens will have grander things in mind. Although a notable stepping stone for the songwriter in his own progression of creative exploration and freedom, the songs of ‘Lysandre’ can seem like a marginal step down in comparison to Girls’ classics such as ‘Alex’ and ‘Lust For Life’.
The talent and poetic contour of his finest songwriting sparkles in places on this album, but any Girls fan would only hope that he can reclaim the fire-cracking inspiration that drove his earlier work.
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