Christopher Owens arrived at the table in 2009 with all of his cards facing up. Cults, wealthy benefactors, drug addiction—nothing was off limits for this guy in interviews. His over-sharing probably would have overshadowed everything else if Owens’s music with Girls weren’t so good. From the 2009 debut, Album, through the 2011 LP, Father, Son, Holy Ghost—and even on the band’s excellent 2010 EP, Broken Dreams Club, in between—Owens revealed himself to be as open a songwriter as he was a talker, constantly sharing sad details in his lyrics about his own broken heart and failed relationships, to the tune of a guitar inspired by oldies radio balladry, surf rock and psychedelia. He and bandmate Chet “JR” White were getting better with each release, but then just last July, he announced on Twitter that he was done with Girls. He said he needed to part ways with the band “in order to progress.” It’s a statement that has come back to haunt him, as his solo album, Lysandre, finds him doing just the opposite.
Lysandre is not a regression in the sense that Owens has returned to the earlier sounds of Girls; it’s more like he regressed to a less open and expressive form of himself as a songwriter. This is evident right from the opening instrumental track, “Lysandre’s Theme,” whose gentle flute-and-acoustic guitar combination daintily welcomes, ye lords and ladies, to the Renaissance Faire. The instrument pairing follows him into the second track, “Here We Go,” where, thankfully, it’s joined by some drums, as well as a three-note, “aw, shucks” harmonica solo and a scuzzy electric guitar at the bridge. It’s a soft, singable introduction with lyrics that acknowledge why Owens is so comforting and relatable as a songwriter: “And if your heart is broken/You will find fellowship with me/And if your ears are open/You will hear honestly from me.”
Owens kind of makes good on that promise of honesty, using the album to offer his personal account of Girls’ first tour in 2008 and his relationship with a woman—the album’s namesake—whom he met during that time. Owens always favored autobiography in his music, but on this album, his strict chronology makes it feel like you’re trapped in his trip diary, and his insistence on remaining in the key of A for the sake of a consistent narrative restricts any sound variety. In the first couple of songs, Owens takes a plane to New York, forces a farting and screeching saxophone on you as he recounts running around the city and then slows things down when he bumps into an ex-boyfriend. “A Broken Heart” is the last song in that sequence, and during this milder one, you can hear the uncomfortable surprise encounter freeze Owens in his tracks: “Nothing like a memory to open up a broken heart/It’s been years, but I look at you now and we’re torn apart.” His lyrics are always simple, yet they have a way of breaking down and conveying complex emotional moments.
They’re also used this time as a platform to jab back at critics: “What if I’m just a bad songwriter/And everything I say has been said before?” he sings on “Love Is In The Ear Of The Listener,” before answering his own question: “Well everything to say has been said before/And that’s not what makes or breaks a song.” Though Owens has said that these words reflected his thoughts in 2008, they still fit today. The whole song is about as ferocious as a “Stick and stones” retort, but better some iffy words than none at all, a lesson learned on the confounding “Riviera Rock.” That bastard saxophone returns for this nearly instrumental song where two female voices repeat the title as waves lap the shoreline in time with an island tourist-trap soundtrack.
Has Owens really changed that much since his time with Girls? Not really. He’s still writing songs about relationships, still singing about them in that lightly nasal, quavering voice. What’s changed is that the big relationship that Owens is analyzing, the one with Lysandre, is examined only in terms of the good times and then through a rose-colored retrospective. “There’s no sad feeling on my album,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s about choosing to remember things positively.” The absence of that emotion makes it feel like Owens is withholding information. He’s more guarded, refusing to give the full story or take any musical chances that stray beyond flat, safe soft rock. Instead of making the more personal record that he intended by telling his side of the tour story, Owens has created his most detached album yet.