Christopher Owens’ career is predicated on the idea that music is the healing force of the universe. The particulars of his own story—raised in a Christian cult, a struggle with heroin addiction—are less important than the notion that music has the power to lift the downtrodden, give strength to the weak, and help anyone feeling down to carry on. One of the tensions that made his band Girls so great is that Owens always seemed like both a performer and a member of the audience; by borrowing melodies and phrases from well known pop hits, he seemed like he was listening and creating at the same time and, by extension, using his music to help both his audience and himself. Because the music faced inward and outward, Girls felt especially communal, and those who clicked with the band connected to something ultra personal and intimate while also feeling like members of the Broken Dreams Club.
Since Girls broke up, the context around Owens’ music has been in flux. His first album, Lysandre, was, he admitted, something he had to get out of his system, a series of themes and musical ideas that needed a home. It drew broadly from the image of the ‘70s singer-songwriter, with some baroque touches like flute and sax to signal “new direction.” If Girls was Owens’ Modern Lovers, Lysandre was his first unsteady step on his own, complete with goofy genre exercises and its own versions of “Ice Cream Man”, i.e. songs that sounded like they were written for children.
A New Testament is much closer to the idea of Girls. It’s got simple songs about love and acceptance and singers steeped in gospel offer swelling background vocals that try to make these songs feel “universal”; the melodies are familiar, based on the most iconic chord progressions; there’s a notable country influence, mostly of the ’50s Bakersfield variety (“A Heart Akin the Wind” has echoes of Buck Owens), with hints of ’60s Memphis (the guitar part on “Oh My Love” is nicked from “Suspicious Minds”); song titles like “Stephen” and “Key to My Heart” have a familiar ring. At first listen, it comes over like a return to the approach that made Girls so great, but it turns out the connections are mostly on the surface.
Owens’ tendency to borrow from classic pop is starting to catch up with him. These songs are so neat and tidy, with every walking bassline and nifty guitar fill exactly where you’d expect it to be, it starts to feel like watching someone assemble a jigsaw puzzle, snapping one piece after another into place. His vocals stay in his most relaxed register, where he sounds halfway between singing and whispering. Where his earlier music thrived on the contrast between that hushed delivery and more demonstrative musical elements, the operative word here is control. The obsession with form combined with the careful delivery lead to an album that often feels weirdly cold and distant.
It’s obviously unfair to expect Owens to make music in the same vein as Girls—he’s entitled to move on, and we can choose to follow him or not. But The New Testament has so many parallels with his earlier band’s approach, it’s impossible to avoid the comparison. There are moments that transcend the record’s limitations, most notably the hymn-like “Stephen”, a song about the death of Owens’ young brother at age two. Though the choir vocals might be a little forced, “Stephen” works because of its specificity. It’s not so much that Owens is drawing from his own life as that he’s writing about people that feel real.
But on the record as a whole, the plug-in lyrics like “my honeybee, you’re nothing more than everything to me” and “always and forever, you’ll be dear to me” and “I’ve got so much love for you, it’s running over” seem like empty signifiers, lines chosen because they sound like they belong in songs like these. Yes, Owens once wrote the line “You’ve got a lovely smile/
I could spend a while with that smile,” but in the context of nervy indie rock, it felt fresh and surprising. He’s a unique artist who surely has more great music in him, but Owens’ work will always be a balancing act, getting the shading and contrast just so; The New Testament feels mostly like one just-OK thing, easy to enjoy on a pass but much harder to love.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1rwMy5i