opinion byAUSTIN REED
It’s extremely telling that the first track off A New Testament, the newest full-length by former Girls frontman Christopher Owens, is “My Troubled Heart,” a song that blends some of the saddest, most woe-is-me lyrics ever conceived with an upbeat backwoods Christian revival-inspired melody. Like we’re hearing Billy Graham melt down to the tune of an accelerated “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me).” It’s extremely telling because of how poignantly it illustrates how much Owens’ past has influenced his very unique present.
Cards on the table: Owens hasn’t exactly lived the most innocuous life. His parents were both members of the Children of God cult—before he was even born, Owens’ infant brother Stephen died of pneumonia because the church refused to enlist professional medical assistance. The Children of God were big on traveling, which means many of Owens’ formative years were spent all over the world, including most of Asia and some of Eastern Europe. If the recipe for great songwriting was one scoop of heartbreak, one scoop of unconstrained world experience and just a dash of unteachable what-the-fuck, Owens had mastered the recipe by accident before he even turned 18.
Which more-than explains why Girls was such a triumph by nearly every standard. Owens and bandmate Chet “JR” White constructed simple, beautiful, hook-heavy pop music that was also deeply emotional lyrically. All three Girls albums (most notably, final LP Father, Son, Holy Ghost) were master-craft representations of Owens’ most prominent influences. In fact, if there’s any criticism at all to attach to Girls’ music, it’s that Owens sometimes borrows a little too closely to his inspiration, dangerously approaching replication at times. But even if that did happen, it never came off as insincere; Girls may soundlike Roy Orbison or The Crickets, but Owens' lyrics were always his own, which was enough to establish authenticity without anyone really blinking.
On A New Testament, we hear Owens returning to the kind of gritty, purposefully dated pop music he was so apt to demonstrate with Girls. 2013’s Lysandre, Owens’ first solo full-length, was a discombobulated amalgamation of themes and ideas set to what I can only call rockabilly flute music. It wasn’t awful, but it decidedly wasn’t the Owens we expected to hear.
And don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that Owens can only succeed in one certain musical avenue, but I am saying that the avenue he chose on Lysandre wasn’t really an avenue at all; it was a necessary dirt-road detour that unnecessarily ended in a purgatorial no man’s land. A New Testament, certainly more in the vein of Father, Son, Holy Ghost, taps into the melodic and rhythmic construction in which Owens can thrive.
Save for the confusion associated with “My Troubled Heart,” the song is actually quite catchy. “Well early in the morning / At the break of day / I ain’t got no God / To whom I pray,” Owens declares in his signature half-whisper-half-croon. It’ll arguably be the most fun you ever have swallowing an uncontrollably heavy lyrical concept.
“It Comes Back To You,” is a wonderful foray into the rich, detailed musical elements that made Girls’ debut full-length Album such a gift. Owens sounds as vulnerable as he does confident, propelling “It Comes Back To You,” with quivering conviction and poise.
Gripping and sobering, “Stephen,” outlines Owen’s upbringing better than ever, illustrating the death of his brother, the separation of his parents and their trials while members of a religious cult. Rife with gospel sensibilities and old-country waltz, “Stephen,” is one of the more deep-South-inspired tracks on A New Testament, which is compelling given how saturated the entire album is with pedal steel guitars and carefully selected backup voices.
However, there are moments when Owens seems to be pressing the issue a bit. “A Heart Akin The Wind,” is the only track that stands up to the old-country propensities present on “Stephen,” but it’s only because it seems to have been written on a page stolen directly from the Hank Williams Sr. playbook. Owens literally sings, “But I’m back out on the road and I guess that I’ll always be / A rolling cowboy following the stars of Tennessee.” Those are actual lyrics that come out of his mouth.
Nevertheless, the replicated whimsy never goes too far. “Never Wanna See That Look Again,” and “I Just Can’t Live Without You (But I’m Still Alive),” end A New Testament on a cheerfully jammy note worthy of receiving the bulk of the album’s listens.
A New Testament may have been misnamed. Instead, it should have been called A New Version of an Old Testament; it doesn’t really go in anywhere new, per se, but it certainly repaves the road Owens has been traveling this whole time. Though at times a little errant and borderline-satirical, A New Testament succeeds because it showcases backward-facing storytelling and incontrovertibly catchy vintage American music. In short, it reminds us why Owens is such a critical piece of the pop music puzzle. B-