Christopher Owens ‘A New Testamant’ – Review

30 Sep

The backlash against Christopher Owens has begun. But why? Only a few years ago he was being hailed as a genius. Sentimental, romantic songwriters like Owens tend to have a very short critical currency. Brian Wilson, Jonathon Richman, Rivers Cumo… all very intense artists who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves. They all had a brief fairly period of praise and adulation followed by many years of critical scorn (before going full circle – at least in the case of Brian and Jonathon). Was it justified? That’s not entirely black and white – indeed I could write a whole article about the eccentric reception history of Weezer’s records, all of which sort of sound the same yet have very different reputations.

In all those cases though it’s arguable that at some stage a switch flicked in their brains. They crossed a line from ‘heart on sleeve’ and ‘romantic’ to plain ‘corny’ – almost as a self-defence mechanism. At the start, In the case of Beach Boys, Weezer, Modern Lovers (and Girls) there was some serious tension between darkness and light. They knowingly courted that tension. The sentimentality and sweetness was offset by; fuzzy guitars and raw production (in the case of Weezer), melancholic melodies (Beach Boys), and a punk aesthetic (Modern Lovers). You could actually apply all those things to the music of Girls. We all know about the real trauma and tragedy behind the songs which made them more powerful. But at some stage, as if to protect themselves from their past deamons, these artists retreated in to themselves, and started to rely on traditional cliches and affectations. Rivers Cumo, Brian Wilson, Jonathon Richman – they put their darkness to bed long ago, which makes them much happier human beings but far less interesting artists. So yes, their modern albums may stylistically resemble their best work, but there is something almost false about it, made all the more apparent by our knowledge of past capabilities.

Which is where we find ourselves with Christopher Owens. He’s off the drugs. He’s quit the difficult band. He’s settled down with a girl. He’s happy. But like ‘Lysandre’ before it, ‘A New Testement’ is both too much heart and not enough heart. It’s all surface heartbreak, and lots of it, but it rarely goes deep in the way his old material did. It’s note perfect, sounds magnificent, hit’s all the right marks, but that in itself is quite telling. Where is the chaos and disorder that marked his best work? It‘s not here, that‘s for sure. The subversive, lo-fi production is long gone in favour of a polished and shiny pop production circa 1972.

For this album Owens went through his old notebook and picked out 12 songs that he wanted to record. Some of these tracks date back to the same time period as the ones featured on Girls debut album. Therefore, there is perhaps inevitably, a second rate quality to many of them. That said, a second rate Christopher Owens song is still an impressively accomplished thing.

There are a handful of great tunes on here, and I’m reminded that Owens’ is his generation’s finest pop balladeer. ‘I Just Can‘t Live Without You‘ tackles everything we‘ve come to expect; heartbreak and living up to familial expectations. ‘Mama didn’t raise no quitter and I just wanna make Daddy proud / and somehow I just keep on breathing though you’re not around, but I don’t know how.’ On paper it reads as corny but as delivered by Owens it’s a tragic and succinct unpacking of some pretty heavy ideas. ‘It Comes Back to You’ features a heavenly, swirling organ that recalls a couple of songs from ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’, while the backing singers from that album also turn up on the slightly too sickly eulogy, ‘Stephen.’

The more upbeat songs are slight and springy. They are also more straight up, what you see is what you get, than we’re used to from Owens. They aren’t as odd as say ‘Lust for Life’, as funny as ‘Big Bad Mean Motherfucker’ or as vibey as ‘Morning Life’. These higher tempo songs are short, sticky but ultimately unmemorable. ‘Nothing More than Everything to Me’, ‘Never Want to See That Look Again’, ‘My Trouble Heart’ – you just need to see the song titles to know that Owens trades in stock metaphors and clichés a a little too much for his own good. He always has to an extent, but here it feels slightly destructive, especially as the lyrical predictability isn’t offset by musical unpredictability, as it was in the past. His work with Girls touched on shoegaze, lo-fi punk, r&b, metal and surf-rock. These songs are mostly straight up singer/songwriter fare in a country rock style.

There on the front cover, in a clear and bright photo we have a snapshot of Christopher and the musicians in front of a white background. Like the songs within it’s a little bland, completely honest, corny and actually a little brave. Above them, in unshowy black font is the name of this record. ‘A New Testament.’ A better title would probably be ‘Another Testament’. It’s more, and perhaps less, of the same. Nothing “new” about it. But the more I think about it the more I think those first two Girls albums were a misdirection. The debut was called ‘Album’ and both of those records were thought to be weighty, singular, era-defining ’statements’. It now seems clear that Christopher Owens isn’t here to make a couple of one off classics. He’s a career artist. The type destined to make dozens and dozens of albums all of a similar style and all of a similar quality. Like Jonathon Richman before him. His sanity and happiness comes at the expense of truly classic songs, so in their place at these likeable but PG versions. I can see him making a record that sounds like this in thirty years time. See if I’m wrong. This is Christopher Owens and this is what he does.

7/10

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