Any critical discussion of Christopher Owens’ music seems to be required to delve deeply into his well-worn backstory – his time in a cult, his sexual and chemical experimentations, etc. However, with the release of Lysandre, Owens’ first post-Girls album, on Fat Possum next Tuesday, the need to re-mine Owens’ background in a review should come to an end. That’s not because those tales have become less interesting in the retelling, but more because how those experiences have informed Owens’ music has become common knowledge. If background for the understanding of Lysandre is required, it simply be this: during his time as a member of the Children of God cult, Owens was exposed to limited, AM radio staples from the decades prior to his birth, and that musical education has become a primary source for all his subsequent output.
Lysandre opens, fittingly, with “Lysandre’s Theme”, an instrumental elegy to the object of the album’s affection: a Frenchwoman Owens met while on tour with his former band. The theme resurfaces frequently over the course of the album, nearly to the point of oversaturation; the fact that it’s played using different instruments doesn’t diminish that exhaustion. The same thirty seconds are used at the end of most of the songs on the album’s first half, starting on flute, moving to horns, then guitar, then lying dormant before resurfacing at the end of the album, again played on the flute. If naming the album (as well as three songs on it) after this woman wasn’t enough to drive the point home that she was Owens’ inspiration, the repetition of said theme surely gets it across.
That repetition, however, is a nod to a practice that’s fallen out of fashion in music with the proliferation of iTunes and single song downloads: the goal of making a complete album. On Lysandre, for the most part, Owens accomplishes that task. The album rolls together well enough, but because of the aforementioned repetition, it can feel forced at times.
Similarly, Owens’ infatuation with creating music in the same vein as what he was raised on can also feel forced. As a member of Girls, that genre was explored more liberally; on Lysandre, it feels like the cleaned-up, radio-ready version of the 1960s, viewed through rose-colored glasses. There’s nothing here that compares with the genius of 2009’s “Lust for Life” or even with the expanse of “Vomit” from the last Girls album. Girls ended, in part, because of Owens’ belief that he needed to “progress.” In that sense, Lysandre seems like a backwards step. Seemingly gone from Owens’ repertoire is the ability to explore the rougher edges of his influences. It shows up in snippets – the guitar part at the end of “Here We Go”, for example – but for the most part, it’s been muted. For a record about longing, about falling for someone, about findings and failings, it’s decidedly clean.
That’s not to say Lysandre is without redeeming qualities. In its quieter moments, the album is vulnerable and honest about Owens’ experience with someone who was clearly important to him. In its better moments the album doesn’t feel like a trite musical homage to what’s come before it. But it crosses the line into hackneyed – on both fronts – rather quickly when Owens doesn’t reign himself in.
In the end, Owens has presented the best version of himself on Lysandre. Here, he’s become someone you can take home to meet your mother, entrust to spend time with your father without worrying that he’s going to cause offense. Lysandre is an album built for the new vinyl generation: scrubbed up, arranged neatly, and packaged perfectly. Knowing where Owens has been in the not-so-distant past, that’s a disappointment.