San Francisco sweetheart Christopher Owens is growing up, which is why he left his band Girls. But his first album on his own is about being terribly young, which might be why it came out charming but mostly immature.
Lysandre, out this week, is a 30-minute wistful sigh that recounts a short-lived, sudden, naive love with a girl Owens (or the narrator) met while on tour. She’s an ethereal creature, never speaking but embodied only in a recurrent theme, a Renaissance-sounding slow waltz riff.
Here’s where Lysandre gets a little heavy-handed as a short album with a story: Lysandre’s theme shows up tacked on at the end of several tracks, played by various incongruous instruments, as if to remind listeners that hey, this album has a theme. During the first trip through the album, the melodic repetition makes for a comfortable, familiar feeling; by the third, it’s a little obvious and cloying. And when odd track “Riviera Rock” spends its entire length turning the theme into a beachy instrumental jam, it’s really hard not to hate-hum the tune to yourself as you fall asleep.
But Owens shows he can also play with familiarity and breed delight, not contempt. “New York City” is a full-bodied, tambourine-shaking tune with lyrics about getting caught by cops, held up at gunpoint and sleeping in pickup trucks — tales that would sound obnoxious coming out of most musicians’ mouths but aren’t so boastful considering Owens’ nontraditional upbringing.
Then, just as that song fades, the next track, “A Broken Heart,” plays with the same melody, reshaping it into something soft and sad, feeling like an echo but with its own soul. “Yeah, I wish I never happened to us / You fell in love with that girl,” he sings, which is a bit unclear — either there’s a third party involved or he’s talking to himself — but clearly bittersweet and one of the album’s best tracks.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to take Owens seriously when, late in the album, he sings lines like “Love is everything that you need / It all comes back to love” in complete sing-song on “Lysandre” and “You said I should kiss you forever / I said that I would” on “Everywhere You Knew.” The latter has a bit of the heart-wrenching simplicity of puppy love, but it’s hard to tell if he’s being tongue-in-cheek about the follies of youth or if he’s an earnest believer.
He pulls it together, though, for the epilogue. After a tearful departure, Lysandre later comes to visit him in San Francisco and she becomes more of an old idealized love than an all-encompassing need. It’s a harmonica-laced and thoughtful look at what it means to always love someone and not love them anymore, or as he puts it, someone who’s “a part of me / that part of me is gone.”
“What if everybody just thinks I’m a phony/What if nobody ever gets it?” Owens frets on “Love is in the Ear of the Listener.” Well, that’s a distinct possibility, and one that may have happened here. But after his work with Girls was both earnest and clever, it’s a bit of a letdown to hear something so lacking in nuance. But maybe he’s just nervous. It is, after all, young love, and everyone knows that makes people do dumb things.
Christopher Owens — New York City (download)
Christopher Owens — A Broken Heart (download)
Christopher Owens — Part of Me (Lysandre’s Epilogue) (download)