by: Michael Shields
Christopher Owens opens up his heavy heart on his solo debut, Lysandre…..
Artists have released concept albums to varying degrees of success over the years. An album dedicated to one central theme, meant to be heard all together at once, is an ambitious idea. Some have become true classics, heralded as some of the finer albums of all time (The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Peppers, Tommy, Pet Sounds, etc.). Others have faltered, and drifted thankfully away into obscurity. The remarkable thing about a concept album is the artistic whole and the integrity of the album is the endgame. It is not about individual songs but rather a continuous narrative, a story broken up into many components with the connotation of having a scholarly intention. Through concept albums the songwriter gets the opportunity to take us places that a single song could never venture.
It is not surprising when a concept album’s central theme is love, and the suffering too often paired with heartfelt affection. Wars have been waged and blood spilled due to love’s powerful allure. Beck wrote Sea Change while recovering from a breakup from his then fiance Leigh Limon (pronounced Lamoan) in 2000, and I will argue it’s his most passionate and beautiful composition to date. The Antler’s Hospice, one of the better albums of 2009, tells the story of a relationship between a hospice worker and a female patient suffering from terminal bone cancer, their ensuing romance, and their slow downward spiral as a result of the woman’s traumas, fears, and disease. The Decemberists (The Hazards of Love), The Magnet Fields (69 Love Songs) and even Fucked Up (David Comes to Life) have invoked love’s influence when conceiving albums. Although it is not a novel idea to conceive an album based on this central theme ((There are literally countless examples – a list of concept albums can be found here.)), the inspiration garnered from being jilted by a lover is potent, and the resulting product can be equally robust. This is true on Christopher Owens solo debut, Lysandre.…..
Christopher Owens was the lead singer and songwriter for the acclaimed band Girls from 2007 to 2012. He, along with his longtime collaborator Chet “JR” White (bass and production), released two full albums (Album and Father, Son, Holy Ghost) and an EP (Broken Dreams Club) during this time period. Christopher has a unique back-story. He was born into a fundamentalist cult called Children of God in Central Europe (Slovenia). At the Age of 16 he freed himself from their confinement and sought refuge in Amarillo, Texas where he began to expose himself to all that was not allowed to him while under the cult’s umbrella; technology, punk rock, etc. At 25 he moved to San Francisco where he established the band Holy Shit with Ariel Pink and Matt Fishbeck. Soon afterwards he met Chet White, and Girls was born unto the world.
It would not be a stretch to describe Girls as one of the better bands of the last half decade. Album and Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are triumphs of simple and honest songwriting and of musical composition that seamlessly forged surf rock, metal, rockabilly, punk, and gospel music. Both albums were perfectly strange and beautiful, and it is because of these two works of art, and the now fleeting hope for more to come, that it is has been difficult to come to grips with the bands break up in 2012 ((The break up was claimed to be due to the band’s often shifting lineup, with the final straw being when guitarist John Anderson, one of Owens’ closest friends, left the band.)).
An artist goes solo for one reason primarily, unchecked artistic freedom. And Christopher takes full advantage on his first solo effort which finds him donning a musical costume of sorts, presenting a themed concept album about falling in love. The album, Lysandre (“pronounced Lee-SAHND-re”), which was allegedly written in one fevered day, is based around a narrative thread about Owens’ love affair with a girl name Lysandre whom he met on tour in France in 2008. Owens laces this simple, often precious album with a naturalist’s attention to detail, referencing locations and specific encounters with Lysandre, and succeeds in creating an extended and intimate homage to his beloved. A thorough listen of Lysandre is akin to being a third wheel on their brief magnified love affair.
The first song on the album, the enticing Here we Go, is the beginning of the love affair suggesting “if your heart is open, you’ll find fellowship with me…if your ears are open, you’ll hear honesty with me.” This is followed by the surf-rocky New York City where the courtship of Lysandre appears to be on the come up (“Look at us in New York City!”) – yet we are abruptly dumped into melancholy with A Broken Heart where Christopher laments on a former lover ((This is reportedly the only song on the album not about Lysandre.)). Levity is lifted with Here we Go Again which segues into waves crashing on a beach introducing us to Riviera Beach, a swinging instrumental track driven by a horn section and background vocals. Owen’s trademark self-doubt dribbles to the surface on Love is in the Ear of the Listener (“what if everybody just thinks I’m a phony, what if nobody ever gets it.”) while Lysandre and the graceful acoustic ballad Everywhere You Knew anchor a satisfactory closing half of the album that leads into the bubbly Part of Me, where Christopher finally says good-bye to Lysandre (“you were a part of me, but that part of me is gone.”)
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone Christopher admitted that he had to make this album, that he had to get the excruciating reflections that permeate the album off his chest and out of his system ((“I recorded it now just so it wouldn’t wait any longer, because there is an expiration date on all this stuff, and luckily it hadn’t reached that.” / “I just had to make it, it’s been burning a hole inside me for so long. But this isn’t what I’m going to sound like forever. I still write songs like I used to; I’ve written songs unlike anything people have heard me write before. I’ve got a lot more to show. And everything I used to show is very much there. This is just something very important that I had to do. I don’t want people to say, “OK, so this is what he’s going to be.”)). The concern here, in respect to the quality of this or any concept album, is that there is a sizable difference between merely purging your soul for cathartic reasons and channeling your profound pain into the creation of a timeless masterpiece. There are certainly moments of brilliants throughout Lysandre, and the overall connectivity of the album, which is held together by a haunting recurring instrumental motif (“Lysandre’s Theme“), works in many ways. But Christopher chose to look inwardly at his feelings, and at his vulnerability, and not one iota of pain is transformed into anything bigger.
One would never confuse Christopher’s solo work with any of Girls catalog. Gone is the power of the full sound only a a band in full is capable of. The tales of romantic infatuation and artistic self-doubt present in Lysandre constitute a sidestep and generally a bit of a letdown after Girls’ previous two conquests ((The Pitchfork review of Lysandre by Stuart Berman had a line in it which felt poignant, which summed up the reasoning for my mild disappointment….”But if the story of Lysandre is so significant to Owens that it demanded its own song cycle, his musical treatments don’t always do the material justice.)). But all is not lost, as the redeeming qualities of Lysandre are plentiful. It’s beautiful and even elegant at times. The songwriting, although not profound or even inventive, is graceful throughout and Christopher’s passion is evident at every turn. There is enough here to be genuinely excited about Owen’s future solo endeavors. Like love lost, one must try and try again. Lysandre, the former lover and now album, is now in Christopher’s past, and the future remains unwritten…..