The first words Christopher Owens utters on Lysandre is “So here we go,” as if he were readying himself and his fans for his maiden voyage as a solo artist. But in the context of Lysandre, he’s actually referring to embarking on his first tour with Girls, which is the theme of Owens’ autobiographical concept album. Ironically enough, Owens’ well-documented attempt to break away from his past with the gone-too-soon Girls only ends up circling back to his claim-to-fame gig as the narrative focus of his debut on his own, as if Lysandre wasn’t already going to be saddled with inevitable comparisons between his new endeavor and the band he initially made his name with.
So although it makes a lot of sense that someone with a one-of-a-kind artistic vision and a can’t-make-this-up bio like Owens would strike out on his own as a storytelling singer-songwriter type, Lysandre suggests not only that he has some baggage he has yet to unpack with Girls, but also that he still has a bit to go to find himself as a solo performer. While his stranger-than-fiction life story—which includes escaping from the Children of God sect, happening upon an oil baron benefactor, and apparently indulging in a very decadent lifestyle in San Francisco—put Owens front-and-center as the most interesting man in indie rock, it’s easy to forget that Girls was a true partnership, as JR White did his fair share of the heavy lifting in conceptualizing the band’s sound. Missing that complementary counterpoint might account for why Owens’ music sounds incomplete, even tentative, for the first time in his career on Lysandre, a surprisingly brief, half-an-hour effort, with the lavish, multi-part epics that showcased Girls at their most adventurous and proficient conspicuously absent.
Aside from its travelogue conceit and the way its opening renaissance faire-like leitmotif appears on all the tracks, Lysandre suffers from a lack of direction and cohesion, which isn’t hard to sense right from the start on “Here We Go”. Despite the track’s lush acoustic palette, embellishments like the easy-listening flutes, wandering harmonica, and a meaty electric guitar pattern end up being distracting, since Owens doesn’t follow through with fully developing the song and how all the parts go together. Likewise, “New York City” moves along nicely enough at a brisk boogie, until a sax solo pushes its way to the foreground a little too much, making the ditty feel more cheesy than snazzy. Most disappointingly, the meandering “Riviera Rock” tries too hard to live up to its name and ends up being a thin, resort-jazz interlude where Lysandre loses momentum right when it needs it the most in the middle of the set.
Indeed, Owens’ (or, more accurately, Girls’) gift for making what’s unhip seem completely cool is missing its touch too much on Lysandre. That’s especially the case with Owens’ lyrics on Lysandre, which sometimes ring discordantly instead of adding idiosyncratic charm. Too often on Lysandre, Owens’ vocals seem more clumsy than eccentric, like the way the lyric “If your heart is broken / You will find fellowship with me” comes off like the most awkward pick-up line ever, whether Owens is addressing the album’s namesake or trying to get the listener to follow where he leads. Maybe “Here We Go Again” gets out to a nice, driving pace, but it screeches to a halt at a break in the action when Owens’ laid-back jive—“So don’t try to get me down / Don’t try to harsh my mellow, man”—sticks out too much to let you go with the flow on it. And basically the whole of “Love Is in the Ear of the Listener” is fairly uncomfortable listening, as Owens meditates on his art in a way that’s oddly self-conscious for someone who’s better known for letting go: Owens begins the song by musing, “What if I’m just a bad songwriter / And everything I say has been said before?,” before going down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, as he wonders, “What if everybody just thinks I’m a phony? / What if nobody ever gets it?” The problem isn’t so much whether Owens is genuine in baring his insecurities, but that his tone is off precisely when he needs it to be on, thanks to his clunky phrasing and off-tempo strumming.
Better off when he’s not getting too in his head about his music or his story, Lysandre is at its most compelling when Owens keeps things simple, when his basic folk picking rings true in conveying sweet, unvarnished sentiment. The acoustic ditty “A Broken Heart”, for one, gently swells with yearning feeling once Owens unlocks the floodgates of memory, his understated vocals accented just so with a touch of flute and twangy slide guitar. On “Everywhere You Knew”, Owens sounds perfectly contented with hanging on to what’s left of a romance that wasn’t meant to last, reflected in the song’s placid, at-ease melody.
What’s most promising about Lysandre is that it ends on a high note, auguring what might be possible for Owens in the new format: “Part of Me (Lysandre’s Epilogue)” is the perfect postscript to an imperfect album, as Owens gets across the sheer joy at having a second chance to relive a once-in-a-lifetime affair through the jaunty pace and bittersweet tone of the song. Speaking of second chances, a closing number like “Part of Me” is enough to make you eager to hear Owens take another crack at finding himself on his own on his own terms.
// Notes from the Road
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