Christopher Owens ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ – Review

30 Jun

It’s a brave move by any musician to open an album with a blatant reference to their most well known song. But Christopher Owens isn’t simply trying to recall the dead past when he opens ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ with the same down strummed D chord that opened ‘Lust for Life’, track one on Girls debut album – that chord represents something altogether more fundamental. It’s symbolic of a new beginning. If his last record, (the polished, likeable and unspectacular ‘The New Testament’) took the full sound of Girls classic ‘Father Son, Holy Ghost’ to a logical conclusion for both artistic and practical reasons (he’s been quite candid about the financial burden of producing such lavish sounds) then that D chord quite consciously dials the clock back further, to when Girls were a small, lo-if indie concern and expectations were low. By starting the album in the same way that he opened his debut, Owens is resetting the clock at zero.

If nothing else the record makes good on that promise of a new start. It feels like a genuine renewal, for better or worse. Instead of gospel choirs we get school choirs and the melodies have a nursery rhyme simplicity. Instead of a string section we get garage band presets. The arrangements are scrappy and unfocused whilst the vocal takes are deliberately sloppy. Girls ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ was justifiably praised as being one of the best sounding albums of recent years, but ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ knowingly goes in the opposite direction.

In my review of his last album I praised the consistency of Owens’ songwriting while comparing him to Brian Wilson and Rivers Cumo – other artists who flew too close to the sun, got burnt and retreated into a simplistic state of sappiness and sentimentality, as if too scared to commit to anything as raw and powerful as ‘Pet Sounds’ or ‘Pinkerton’. That’s where Owens has been heading for a while now and on ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ he continues down the sugary path laid down on ‘The New Testament’. The lyrics contain none of the bile, bite or bruising of his work with Girls and instead we’re given stock metaphors, easy cliches and an almost delusional sense of optimism -an optimism that is undone on the best, and uncoincidentally most heartbreaking songs.

These moments of undiluted honesty and sadness are far fewer on this record than on say ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ but when they come they are still beautiful. When he sings ‘we can’t go back, there’s just no way’ on ‘Waste Away’ you can hear the longing and despair pouring out of him, likewise when he asks for somebody to teach him how to love on ‘To Take Care of Myself Again’. In these moments he retreats to familiar chord progressions and unfussy arrangements that have served him well in the past, and it’s here where the magic happens.

But it’s a little harder to forgive the predictable musicality when the lyrics are cornball or the emotions are undercooked. His childlike sensibilities are endearing until they are brought front and centre on the chintzy ‘Music of my Heart’ and ‘What About Love.’ And a couple of the love songs feel too guarded and generic to make any impact; the four song suite starting with ‘Susanna’ being an example. Least appealing of all are the tracks that have potential but feel under thought and undercooked – ‘Ive got nothing to say but there’s so much on my mind’ he moans on ‘Coffee and TV’, one of three songs about feeling lazy and unproductive that we could do without.

Warts and all, Christopher Owens is a likeable artist with a singular vision and distinctive aesthetic. ‘Chrissybaby Forever’ is not his strongest effort, in fact it may be his weakest, but it never sounds like anybody’s work except his – and when you use classic rock n roll tropes as rigidly as Owens does, that is an impressive achievement.

6.5/10

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