In a lengthy, revealing interview with Pitchfork, Christopher Owens mentioned that he thought the songs he’d written for Girls’ 2011 album Father, Son, Holy Ghost were capable of winning Grammys. If he only meant that those songs were among the best of the year–or even of the era–then he certainly would have been correct. But if Owens, whose heartfelt honesty has made his interviews nearly as captivating as his songwriting, truly believed that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences might recognize that achievement as such, then it’s further proof that the Bay Area songwriter is only partially of this world. What I mean is that, for all of his personal eccentricities, Christopher Owens occupies a space that many of us left behind years ago, a place where recognition from awards shows and the Billboard charts are actual barometers of success. He’s long heralded the work of Ariel Pink, but he doesn’t seem to get the joke–or, what’s more likely, he doesn’t particularly care that it’s a joke. It wouldn’t be right to call him post-irony, if only because he doesn’t seem to have ever gone through irony’s throes.
That’s not really a fair reading–you don’t escape from what Owens has escaped from without growing a little world-weary–but the tenderness that characterizes Lysandre, his first post-Girls album, is beyond reproach. The album largely concerns Girls’ first tour through Europe, and Owens’ relationship with a French woman whose name gives the album its title. Owens and Lysandre’s relationship dissolved, just as the Girls project dissolved, and while Lysandre is not without its devastating moments, it’s a far cry from the existential horror that powered some of Father, Son, Holy Ghost’s most moving songs. Where that record, and Album before it, tried to rally its singer and subjects out of defeat, Lysandre finds Owens comfortably removed; he’s telling his story, not recreating it.
Threaded throughout the album are variations on a musical theme–eight or so bars of lilting melody that sound as though they could have been lifted from a medieval score. It caps nearly all of Lysandre’s nine songs, and makes up the entirety of two more. That theme is these songs’ logical conclusion, and the sense of urgency, fear, and first-blush excitement that accompany love is answered by the mixture of sadness and resolution that those notes promise. It chases Owens through Texas and New York as he gets popped for offenses large and small, it buttresses the soothing promises of opener “Here We Go,” and it skanks its way across the Atlantic in the reggae-tinged “Riviera Rock.” There, in the South of France, Lysandre’s home, the theme drops away, and Owens, after girding himself into trusting his own muse with “Love is in the Ear of the Listener,” drops two of the most breathtakingly tender songs he’s ever written. He woos his beloved over the cottontail rhythm of the title track, conjuring up “So Happy Together” and getting away with it. Then, in “Everywhere You Knew,” he captures their final moments together before he returns home with devastating clarity. Scraps of telling detail–her sitting on his lap, the two of them watching TV together at her mother’s house, a night spent together in a park–are dropped into a diminishing spotlight of a melody, framed by Owens’ gentle delivery. It’s nothing new for him to be so emotionally direct, but when he sings that final line–“I knew that even if my plane went down/I’d be just fine if I was thinking about/Falling in love with you on the first tour with my band”–and the forgotten theme comes crashing back in like an inevitability with its broad cymbals and ringing piano, it’s hard not to gasp. Still, its final notes tick upwards.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost was a major step, and while Lysandre’s relative simplicity isn’t likely to drum up the same kind of praise, it feels like an even bigger step forward for Owens as a writer. “Part of Me,” the album’s harmonica-driven closer, serves as an epilogue, explaining the foregone conclusion–“The summer sun/A perfect day/A perfect night that ended in the morning/And then I said goodbye.” Owens returns to San Francisco a tour veteran in a rising band, and beset by all of the complications that come with that tag. Meanwhile, Lysandre comes to visit, and when she leaves, they drift apart; the relationship wilts under everyday pressure. “You were a part of me/Such a great big part of me/That part of me is gone,” he sings, and while it’s clear he’s singing just as much about Girls as he is about his girl, it’s hard not to hear the song as a farewell to all kinds of innocence. It’s the prerequisite, in a way, to the very real kind of pain that Owens documents on Album and Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and so it’s the theme that runs through everything, devastating, full of sadness and pointing towards resolution. words/ m garner