In light of Christopher Owens' never-a-dull-moment backstory and back catalog, the last thing you'd expect is that A New Testament would be as monotonous as it is.
You typically wouldn't describe Christopher Owens' music as same old same old, not considering his back catalog with indie oddballs Girls and what's known about the life experiences that have shaped his perspective as a songwriter. As his stranger-than-fiction bio goes, Owens fled from the Children of God religious cult in Slovenia at the age of 16 to live with his sister in Amarillo, Texas, where he was then taken under the wing of an eccentric oil tycoon, only then to strike out for San Francisco to seek his own fame and fortune as an artist. And that was something he was well on his way to achieving with Girls, creating two well-received neo-retro-rock albums before abruptly breaking up in 2012.
In light of Owens' never-a-dull-moment backstory and how he's been able to channel the drama that always somehow finds him into his songs, the last thing you'd expect is that his second solo outing, A New Testament, would turn out as monotonous as it is. Despite working with a backing band made up of players from Girls' swan song Father, Son, Holy Ghost and tapping into an eclectic mix of elements, from lonesome country tones to soulful choir accompaniments to tender torch-pop touches, Owens mostly spins his wheels on A New Testament. Becoming more and more repetitive as it goes on, the album doesn't vary in pace, tone, and theme nearly enough, moving from one mid-tempo, sweetly melancholic, almost-three-minute love song to the next. Even if Owens is still able to maintain his uncanny ability to get away with expressing the most saccharine clichés, it's the redundancy of the same thoughts and feelings that takes its toll more than the sentimentality.
It makes sense that the beginning of A New Testament garners the most interest, if simply because the album hasn't become a broken record yet. But it's also a case that Owens frontloads A New Testament with his most deft and clever songwriting moves, particularly in the way he plays with traditional styles and turns fragments of hymns into pop nuggets. On the opener "My Troubled Heart", Owens creates an intriguing tension between the brisk, upbeat tone of the music and the searching lyrics, especially when the song breaks with rising organ and a gospel choir to underline Owens' uneasy words ("Well the valley's deep and the mountain's high / My troubled heart, sure to make me cry"). Here, as with the karmic homily of "It Comes Back to You" ("When you help someone in need / That's when you help yourself indeed"), it's as if the uplift in the music not only sustains Owens, but gives him something better to strive for. Owens is even more powerful shifting from abstract spirituality to personal experience on the album's centerpiece "Stephen", which serves both as a retrospective tribute to a baby brother who passed away when he was only two and a detailed account of how his family was torn apart from being in the Children of God. The overtones of spirituals on "Stephen" resonate with more meaning as they go from the general to the specific, as the soothing effect of familiar musical themes becomes almost therapeutic for Owens.
No doubt it would be difficult for Owens to sustain the intensely personal pitch that he hits on "Stephen" for an entire album, considering how deeply felt the song is. Still, from that point on, A New Testament lacks the richness and immediacy of its early pieces, as the heartrending specificity of "Stephen" gives way to commonplaces that become formulaic before too long. The Flying Burrito Brothers-ish "Oh My Love" gets generic with the introspective twang of the pedal steel guitar and in the cadence of Owens' vocals, but it feels even more so when he repeats himself on "A Heart Akin the Wind" and "Key to My Heart". "A Heart Akin the Wind", in particular, comes off wincingly clichéd, as Owens can't convince you that he's just like "a roamin' cowboy following the stars of Tennessee" no matter how thick he lays on the clickety-clack percussion and moseying guitars.
By the time you get to Owens imploring that "I've got so much love for you / It's running over" over meandering steel guitar on "Over and Above Myself" and pleading "Say it's not true my love that you don't need me any more" on "Never Wanna See That Look Again", he's telling a story you've heard before and over and over again on A New Testament. So although he's got some of the same crew that helped Girls' Father, Son, Holy Ghost stand out on board for A New Testament, Owens could've used the push-and-pull of playing off another strong musical imagination, as he had in Girls with ex-partner-in-crime J.R. White. As has been the case with both A New Testament and 2013's Lysandre before it, Owens, as a solo artist, has tended to get too bogged down in whichever vernacular he's chosen to work with over the course of an album. This time, even when the musical inflection shifts slightly from C&W to old-school rock on "Never Wanna See That Look Again" and the closer "I Just Can't Live Without You (But I'm Still Alive)", the variation doesn't feel as discernible as it could, because the themes and sentiments are the same, as Owens' sweet nothings end up feeling all the more insubstantial.
Ironically, it's almost as if Christopher Owens has lost some of his defining qualities as an artist by stamping his own name on his music. Without the flair for the unexpected that Owens made his reputation with, A New Testament feels like a counter intuitive statement for a songwriter whose known for having such a distinctive personality.