There’s a moment on his song “Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener” where Christopher Owens, the former Girls frontman, expresses doubt in the plainest way possible: “What if I’m just a bad songwriter, and everything I say has been said before?” Then, not entirely convincingly, he reassures himself: “Well, everything to say has been said before, and that’s not what makes or breaks a song.” The whole song, in fact, is about doubt, and attempting to convince yourself that your doubts are wrong. But at least on the songwriter score, Owens didn’t need to worry; he’s one of the best we’ve got. After an early life of almost unimaginable chaos and upheaval and shittiness, he didn’t come to music until his late ’20s and almost immediately showed a rare gift for cutting, economical emotional precision. He’s fond of saying that the songs on Girls’ debut Album are the first songs he wrote, and holy shit, those songs are great. On Lysandre, his solo debut, his gifts haven’t abandoned him. Consider, for example, the way he captures the sudden rise from squalor to adulation, a topic that’s already animated a whole ton of great rap songs, on “New York City.” First, there are the stray memories of the life he was lucky to escape: “I remember begging my best friend for my life / He cut me and his wife with a pocket knife / I remember getting picked up for petty crime / Getting locked up for holding a dime.” And then, the euphoric rush of the chorus: “But look at us in New York City / Everybody’s listening to me.” Owens’s voice, tremulous but smooth, captures the transition with a wonderful bewilderment. But unfortunately, he’s getting this feeling across on a song where it sounds like the sax player from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band bum-rushed his way into an early Dandy Warhols studio session. And that’s the big problem with Lysandre: It’s not a Girls album, and it probably should be.
In this Pitchfork interview, Owens attempted to explain why he suddenly and unexpectedly left Girls last year, and it’s not a very satisfying explanation, something to do with band-member turnover that was too high. He also mentions how he doesn’t want to be part of anybody’s indie scene anymore, and fair enough. But Girls were so good at indie rock. Somehow, JR White knew exactly what to do with Owens’s great voice and his even better songs at every turn: When to slather on effects-pedal whooshes, when to bury subtle little handclaps in the mix, how to put together a perfect endorphin-rush intro. The result was the sort of thing indie rock promises and so rarely delivers: Intense, personal sentiment, delivered artfully, in the form of music that nods to rock history but breaks from it wherever necessary, that ropes in a ton of different influences without ever sounding like anything other than itself. The more I listen to Girls’ two albums and one EP, the more they remind me of, say, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, an album that started out sounding like a burst of pure internal turmoil and slowly reveals its insane level of craft over time. I don’t actually know anything firsthand about Owens and White’s working relationship, but I imagine it the same way I imagine David Simon and Ed Burns’s working relationship behind the scenes of The Wire: One visionary genius, one very good craftsman who helps keep everything grounded and focused. Lysandre, then, is Owens’s Treme: The solo follow-up that shows flashes of his old partnership’s brilliance but too often falls frustratingly short, mired in its own great intentions, missing that counterbalance voice. And as with Treme, saxophones figure heavily.
I have little doubt that Lysandre is exactly the album Owens wanted it to make. For one thing, it’s a loose concept album, a story about a relationship that started on the first Girls tour and ended shortly thereafter. And there’s a lot going on in it, too: The rush of sudden almost-fame, the dizzy cloudy oblivion of love just starting, the weird conflicted shittiness when this thing that you’re supposed to be excited about is keeping away from the person who’s become your addiction, the veiled resentment when it all ends. If anything, the story of Lysandre, I have to imagine, tells more about the end of Girls than any band-member turnover. It’s a small and personal story, but it’s one that gets resonance from its specificity. Very few of us have been through a situation like the one Owens describes here, but plenty of us have been through periods of absolute upheaval, where your life completely gets turned upside-down and you’re not sure what’s real or how to deal with it. And there’s craft here, too. Producer Doug Boehm, who did such great work on Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost layers on the flutes and harmonicas and acoustic guitars just gorgeously, and the album’s luxurious ’70s singer-songwriter aesthetic works as often as it doesn’t.
But then, a lot of the time, it just doesn’t work. For whatever reason, Owens has decided to make an album that sounds like it could soundtrack, say, a romantic ’70s drama that stars Warren Beatty. It’s all bittersweet studio opulence, the Renn-faire arrangements only sometimes pushing the sentiments home harder. A lot of the time, the constant flute and sax tootles work as distractions. The interludes, of planes taking off and ambient beach noises and airport boarding instructions, don’t add anything except maybe the running-time padding necessary to get Lysandre‘s 28 minutes beyond EP length. The mostly-instrumental “Riviera Rock” sounds like background music for a vodka commercial about a non-James Bond secret agent. The whole album sounds like the work of a gifted and ambitious songwriter who wants to move closer to the sounds his idols made but who’s ever so slowly drifting away from the things that once made him great. Lysandre has plenty of great moments, and it’s well worth your attention. But it’s also, by far, the worst record of Owens’s short career. He’s too great a songwriter to count out, and I have every confidence that he’ll be back to making great music soon enough. But it’s endlessly frustrating to hear him put out an album that’s just pretty good.
Lysandre is out 1/15 on Fat Possum.