Album Turns 10
“I’m sick and tired of the way that I feel.” That was how Christopher Owens introduced himself to the world. It’s the opening line from “Hellhole Ratrace,” the first Girls song that anyone heard. “Hellhole Ratrace” was a seven-minute sprawl, with Owens floating his tremulous gulp of a voice over an acoustic strum and a few dazed tremolo noodles. Halfway into the song, a rush of guitar-fuzz exploded into the mix, a great crashing goosebump moment. But the song refused to resolve into the anthem it could’ve been. It remained broken, hazy, off-kilter. Through a fog of echo, Owens sang about trying to escape depression and solitude, trying to find community and companionship: “I don’t wanna cry my whole life through / I want to do some laughing too.” In the grainy video, Owens and his friends drank and shoplifted and made out.
I was smitten. A lot of people were smitten. “Hellhole Ratrace” came into the world at the end of 2008 — a mysterious MySpace link that became a quiet internet sensation back when that could still happen. Nobody knew anything about Girls. A few months later, I saw the band open up for Grizzly Bear at an Austin Presbyterian church during SXSW. Owens was a tiny, pretty elf of a man with tangled hair and ripped jeans, and he stared at the floor for most of the time that he was onstage. The band’s showmanship was pretty much limited to the giant floppy hat that one of his bandmates wore. (This was one of the revolving-door sidemen; Girls were always just the duo of Owens and bassist/producer JR White, plus whoever else was around.) It didn’t matter. Girls, it turned out, had at least a half hour’s worth of songs just as good as “Hellhole Ratrace.”
They also had a story. The details of Christopher Owens’ life seemed made-up, impossible. A childhood spent in a notorious cult, moving around the world. An absent father. A younger brother who’d died of pneumonia because the cult didn’t believe in medicine. A mother who’d been forced to turn tricks to make money for the cult. A first guitar gifted by a former member of Fleetwood Mac, one who’d left the band to join the cult. A squalid gutterpunk runaway youth in Texas. A fortuitous friendship with a mysterious eccentric millionaire. A move to San Francisco. And a band that had seemingly started by pure happenstance, even though they had these incredible songs.
Christopher Owens had lived a life. By the time we met him, he was a grown man in his late twenties, even though he looked and sometimes sounded like a soul-shattered teenager. You could hear echoes of all sorts of past music in Girls’ songs: Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys, Big Star, Elvis Costello, the Smiths. And yet Owens never came off as a record-collector type. Instead, he seemed like he’d somehow internalized classic guitar-pop tropes and filtered them through his own deeply fucked personal history.
Through the early months of 2009, Girls released a steady drip of fragile, drugged-out, generally stunning indie-pop songs. There didn’t seem to be much context to what they were doing. San Francisco had a thriving garage-rock scene — Thee Oh Sees, the Fresh & Onlys, Sonny & The Sunsets — but Girls only seemed to glancingly intersect with it. And Girls didn’t have anything to do with Animal Collective or the Dirty Projectors or the aforementioned Grizzly Bear, the solemnly ecstatic and harmony-heavy indie troika who seemed poised to take over the world that year. Girls instead called back to an older idea of both classicist pop and underground rock. Owens immediately came off as a wounded, vulnerable savant — one who seemed equally likely to drop a classic album or to end up dead in an alley somewhere.
He dropped a classic album. Album, the first Girls LP, came out in September, and it made good on all the promise of those early singles. “Lust For Life,” the giddy and nervy opening track, was an immediate lovestruck anthem. Owens sang about feeling a deep dissatisfaction with his own life in the simplest, most relatable terms imaginable: “I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine.” That was the vibe Owens gave off for the rest of the album, too. He had desperation in his pleas: “Just give all your attention to me.” He begged friends for forgiveness and pledged devotion and vowed, again and again, that he just wanted to go out and have fun and stop being sad.
A lot of the credit should go to JR White, who knew exactly how to record Owens. Album swung from one mini-genre to the next with absolute panache — the expert shoegaze revivalism of “Morning Light,” the revved-up beach-pop of “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker,” the sinister lounge-country of “Headache.” White knew exactly how much reverb to slather on Owens’ voice, when to add a twangy Duane Eddy guitar, how to layer pillowy guitar sounds. It’s a truly confident debut album about never, ever feeling the tiniest bit confident.
I reviewed Album for Pitchfork when it came out, pushing hard for it to get a big number, saying things at staff meetings like, “Well, it should definitely get a higher score than the xx album.” I wrote for Pitchfork for seven years. That whole time, I’m not sure I was ever more passionate about an album that I was reviewing. To me, it was self-evident that Album was a perfect album, that it was everything an indie rock record could or should be. I ended my review with a line about how I hoped Christoper Owens would not die. My editor cut it, and he was right to do so.
Christopher Owens did not die. But Girls were not built to last. They followed Album up with one EP (great) and one more album (even better). And then Girls ceased to be. Owens quit the band via tweet. White apparently only learned that the band was done when he saw that tweet. Owens went on to release a few solo albums, which always had a great song or two but which never captured the magic of Girls. A couple of years ago, he started a band called Curls, and they put out a record with exactly one great song. White worked on a few other people’s records: a Cass McCombs LP, that one Tobias Jesso Jr. album, a scrapped DIIV joint.
Neither Owens nor White seems to be doing much these days, at least not in terms of maintaining music careers. Owens said on Twitter a few weeks ago that Curls would take a break, since the band’s lineup hadn’t stabilized. His Etsy store is inactive, too. I don’t know what White is doing now. Are there bands who have cited Girls as an influence? If there are, I haven’t heard them. Nobody is making reverbed-out, feelings-first power pop anymore. Nobody seems terribly nostalgic for the Girls era, either. But wow, I loved that band. Still do.
When Girls broke up, I remember feeling utterly bereft. This band had so much promise! But “promise” is a meaningless concept. Girls made two great albums, which is two more than most bands. Then they ended. They never lost their way. They never hit an uninspired stretch. They never teased a festival reunion on Instagram. And they still haven’t become a nostalgic totem. That’s fine. Sometimes, a great album can just be a great album, and that’s what Album is.