When the San Francisco band Girls released its debut album, simply titled Album, in 2009, frontman Christopher Owens’ backstory threatened to eclipse his musical accomplishment. He had grown up in a religious cult and had been sheltered from pop music and pop culture for most of his life. When he escaped, he embraced the Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, Black Sabbath, Skeeter Davis, and The Ramones all with equal zeal, which allowed him to turn all those disparate elements into joyful, unassuming, endlessly catchy indie pop. For that reason, while he can pen a melody that’ll put you in mind of Pet Sounds, his approach to music has never been academic.
Instead, it’s allowed a form of self-expression so specific and intense that it approaches autobiography. “I’ve been messing with so many girls who could give a damn about who I am,” he sings on opener “Honey Bunny.” “They don’t like my bony body, they don’t like my dirty hair, or the stuff that I say, or the stuff that I’m on.” It’s a very particular warts-and-all self-portrait, adopting pop’s evergreen optimism of balancing true love and true self.
While not exactly a pop savant, Owens has sharpened his songwriting in the few years since Album, and the new tunes sound more open-ended, allowing them to build on and play off one another naturally and easily, without being forced into a self-conscious song cycle or concept album. “My Ma” is all slow burn and slow build, almost an overture to the pleading “Vomit,” which sounds nothing like its title suggests. “Come into my heart,” Owens croons over and over, turning the lyric into both a romantic invitation and a narcotic foreboding, and the desperation in his vocals couldn’t have been learned solely from pop music. The gospel backing vocals may be a bit over the top, but the moment stands as an emotionally direct and musically sophisticated high point on Father, Son, Holy Ghost: familiar elements transformed into something new and desperately personal.
This is an album about juxtaposition and contrast, so the yearning “Alex,” which sounds lit by a beach campfire at twilight, segues into the riff-heavy “Die,” with its classic rock noodling and harried lyrics. Girls do pop melancholy and metal misanthropy equally well. “Just a Song” builds off a simple flamenco theme and a snare roll that sounds like waves on the beach. Owens, however, repeats the line “Love, it’s just a song” until its voice breaks down into simple, seemingly wordless tones—more instrumental than human, as though he’s literally losing himself in the song.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost is full of such odd, unexpected pleasure, which all the more impressive considering how familiar the elements are. That’s perhaps Girls’ most impressive trick: finding so many new ideas and emotions in pop’s well-worn sounds. In that regard, this album not only surpasses its predecessor but raises the bar for any band, indie or otherwise, mining the past for inspiration.