As the singer and songwriter of the S.F. rock band Girls, Christopher Owens often seemed to teeter on the edge of an abyss. Songs like "Laura" and "Hellhole Ratrace" are propelled forward by their desperate yearning, by the sense that Owens is losing something he loves, heading toward something he hates, and only barely avoiding some lurking calamity.
The oft-told story of Owens' childhood in the Children of God cult contributed to the image of him as an alien on Planet Normal, barely remaining free of the troubled life from which he'd come. If it wasn't clear enough from the title of the group's 2010 EP -- Broken Dreams Club -- Girls' second and final album, 2012's lauded, sprawling Father, Son, Holy Ghost, found Owens grappling with own life yet again, from an attempt to reconcile his fraught relationship with his mother ("My Ma") to the album's first single, a slab of maximalist, lovesick hard rock entitled "Vomit."
But Owens ended Girls, the duo he founded with bassist and producer J.R. White, last year, for reasons that are still a bit murky. His first solo album, out today, sees the 33-year-old striking a remarkably different tone. Lysandre is the story of an ultimately ill-fated romance Owens pursued during Girls' first European tour in 2008 -- but it's a sweet, rosy-eyed recounting, not a wounded one.
Musically, Owens mostly replaces Girls' summery pop and grinding hard-rock with a baroque blend of fingerpicked acoustic guitar, flute, lap-steel guitar, harmonica, and female background vocals. Working with Doug Boehm, who also produced Girls' last record, Owens has made a tender folk album with a few rock moments; Lysandre even has a swampy dub reggae song called "Rivera Rock."
Owens pairs this softer sound with a story about the exhilaration of going on tour, his insecurities at performing live, and tender anecdotes about his time with the Frenchwoman who gave the album its title. Several of the new tunes are excellent, like the rollicking, sax-abetted "New York City," the ooh-la-la-filled "Here We Go Again," and the Dylanesque ramble of "Part of Me (Lysandre's Epilogue)." The compact pop of the title track could be an old Beatles song, save for the flute.
Unfortunately, there isn't all that much to Lysandre, musically speaking. Written mostly in a day, the album breezes by in a mere 28 minutes. And the melody of "Lysandre's Theme," which recurs throughout the record's 11 songs, begins to feel a little like padding by the end.
But what Lysandre really lacks -- and what makes it fall short of any of Owens' work with Girls -- is the sense that something difficult and genuine and important is at stake. This story deals with dark feelings, drug use, and profound doubt, but only in the past tense. There are no moments of tension or struggle that aren't immediately resolved. By the end, Owens sings that Lysandre was "such a great big part of me... but that part of me is gone." And he doesn't sound particularly aggrieved about it. "There's no sad feeling on my album," Owens said in an interview with Purevolume. "It's about choosing to remember things positively." That may be a better way to live, but it doesn't make a great narrative for an album.
It's also a stark change from the past. Even Girls' happier songs came shaded with the feeling that an all-consuming darkness could arrive at any moment, that Owens and White were barely avoiding death, anguish, or another tumble into self-destructive behavior. The poignancy of lines like "I wish I had a suntan/ I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine" from "Lust for Life" came from the fact that they followed Owens singing, "I wish I had a father/ Maybe then I would've turned out right." And when Girls confronted the ugly stuff, they did so unflinchingly, with Owens' famous frankness resulting in lyrics whose honesty was often difficult to hear.
On Lysandre, Owens unguardedness goes largely to other end of the spectrum. On the title track, he's certain that Lysandre will come to him: "'Cause love is everything thing that you need/ It always comes back to love/ Kissin' and a-huggin' is the air that I breathe/ I'll always make time for love." Owens does let us in on his doubt-filled inner monologue during "Love Is in the Ear of the Listener," but even then, every insecurity ("What if everybody just thinks I'm a phony/ What if nobody ever gets it?) immediately precedes a confident answer. It's as if Owens has written a love story by telling us from the very beginning that everything is going to turn out just fine.
One could argue, we suppose, that there's a place for a lighter, sweeter record in Owens' body of work. And it's a bit awkward to complain that someone who's lived through such incredible difficulties has found a way to live positively. But much of what Girls fascinating was its emotional range, the sense that its songs were like private telegrams from the darkest parts of the human soul. Christopher Owens remains a talented songwriter. On Lysandre, he's just singing from a less compelling place.