Album Review: Christopher Owens – Lysandre

[Fat Possum; 2013]

A lot of Christopher Owens’ commentary following his departure from the esteemed Bay Area indie rock troupe Girls seems to suggest a career ambition not often seen in musicians of his stature. Not content to ride out the wave of critical goodwill following the release of Girls’ 2011 release, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Owens has struck out on his own for a cycle of songs about a Frenchwoman he fell in love with on Girls’ first European tour.

It’s a decision that appears curious from pretty much any angle you try to look at it, but it’s clear that Lysandre’s mellower instrumentation and sparser arrangements are a reaction to the near psychedelic grandiosity of Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Critics far and wide took tracks like the seven-minute sprawl of “Vomit” to be natural extensions of Owens’ early work — a fleshing out of the ideas present in seedling form on Album. But when examined as a collection of songs, rather than just for the overall production aesthetic and critical narrative, Father, Son, Holy Ghost was a ‘70s rock sidestep to the sedulous constructions of the band’s debut. It tested J.R. White’s production chops, but it represented for Owens a stagnation of the heavy-lidded emoting that cropped up throughout his songwriting. Through that lens, Owens’ departure from the comfort of the project that shot him to notability seems a lot more sensible, even admirable in its attempts. Owens chooses to cast himself in the role of wryly observant storyteller rather than mere deliverer of romantic platitudes.

The record opens with the recurring “Lysandre’s Theme,” a 38 second flute-led intro that functions as a cinematic mood setter — an opening credits for the tragic love story that follows. Though the songs themselves–and to an even greater degree, Owens’ lyrics — deserve much of the credit, it’s brief moments such as this that gives Lysandre the color in its cheeks. With nothing more than that fluttering intro, Owens declares that this record is intended as a serious business collection of songs rather than acoustic castoffs from his former project. Praising this album for its lyrical thematic consistency would admittedly be a bit off base, that much is built into the concept of the record, but the deftness and maturity with which Owens addresses the initial infatuation and eventual dissolution of the brief relationship with Lysandre is fascinating for a songwriter so often tied up in generalities.

At the emotional centerpiece of the record is a suite of songs that has been around since before Girls’ Broken Dreams Club. Once referred to as “Lysandre 3,” “Lysandre 7,” and “Lysandre 8” respectively, “A Broken Heart,” “Lysandre,” and “Everywhere You Knew” saw their biggest stage in Owens’ famous bathtub performance for Pitchfork during the Matador at 21 celebration. Even then, it was possible to see the connection between the tracks, but here they function to fill out most of the action of Lysandre’s story in eloquent, and often hooky ways.

After the ethos appeal of “Here We Go,” “A Broken Heart” zeroes in on the advertised forlorn tale of lost love. With the opening line, “Nothing like a memory to open up a broken heart,” Owens starts a self-flagellating exploration of the Lysandre-shaped ache he feels. The story takes on a lilting yet lovelorn tone in the title track, with Owens sounding surprisingly upbeat over woodwind harmonies despite cries of waiting around and not wanting to beg. “Everywhere You Knew,” the following track, skips a few steps and finds a clueless Owens beckoning Lysandre to his lap, while giving wistful recourse of the previous few days. Each of these tracks was present in that aforementioned Matador at 21 performance, and if nothing else, these three songs serve as testaments to how fully formed Owens’ Lysandre-induced bout of creative productivity was. Nearly three years later, these songs reside in mostly the same form (retaining the same lyrics and acoustic guitar background), but augmented by aching swells of slide guitar and the trim smack of restrained drums, these three tracks function as everything Owens could have dreamed this first solo effort to be.

But then there’s the rest of the album, which aims for similar points of emotional cohesiveness, but due to some ham-fisted instrumental choices, the message can become muddled. “Here We Go,” and its sequel “Here We Go Again,” seem to detail Owens’ physical journey on the tour that preceded the Lysandre affair — which one could argue is important contextual information — but the swaths of electric guitar, saxophones and ooh-la-la’s serve only to distract from Owens’ stated purpose. Regardless of Owens’ intentions, and I certainly don’t mean to accuse him of intentionally cloaking these songs in irony, there’s just something strange about the saxophone-led quasi-reggae of “Riviera Rock” when it’s contrasted with songs as heartbreakingly honest as “Everywhere You Knew.” Even in a world where Destroyer’s Dan Bejar smashes a pins and needles sax solo into the lead single from his most recent album, and where M83 conquers the world (and Bill Clinton’s heart), Owens is dealing in loaded musical language here. On a record where the intentions lie far from Oneohtrix Point Never styled explorations in sonic reclamation, some of the deeper cuts fall victim to a tonal blacklist. Saxophones are safe in the avant-explorations of someone like Colin Stetson, and girl group backing vocals are safe when provided the safeguard of waves of lo-fi noise, but when Owens embraces these tropes as wholeheartedly as he does on tracks like “New York City,” the growth of his songwriting voice — the new found specificity of his pointed observations — is muddled in sounds that scan as schmaltz.

So with Lysandre we catch our first glimpse of Christopher Owens on his own. What this means, we’re left to question. In an interview with MTV Hive, Owens hinted that he was considering the possibility of making “a classic jazz album, a classic country album, and a show tunes album.” I want to tell you that “Christopher Owens: Career Musician” means a constantly improving songwriter and storyteller, as the best parts of Lysandre so clearly suggest. But that quote leaves open the possibility that it means Owens has struck out on his own to play a game of genre dress up and that Lysandre is just the first frilly-sleeved AM-radio-tinted installment. We can only hope that if the latter path is the one he chooses that he doesn’t forget the former as well.