Christopher Owens can’t outrun his backstory: Born into the Children of God cult and hauled to proselytize across Asia and Western Europe before fleeing as a teen and dead-ending in Texas. Stumbling across a wealthy benefactor and starting over in San Francisco. Finding lovers. Finding substances. Finding J.R. White and forming Girls.
Following the dissolution of Girls, Owens launches his solo career with Lysandre, a wispy slip of a concept album spun from the rush and gush of more idealized beginnings. No lyric sheet is needed to follow the plot—Lysandre hews to the same narrative arc as every great musical about musicians making music, from Eddie and the Cruisers to The Muppet Movie. Boy meets band. Band meets big city. Boy in band meets girl. Things fall apart.
The pied-piper anthem “Here We Go” marks the first beat of the story, laying down a backdrop of wistful flutes and sighing harmonica as Owens invites the pure of heart, the broken-hearted, and the just plain broken to join in the fellowship of song. If not for the earned innocence of the singer’s upbringing, the guilelessness of the lyric might be easy to dismiss—over the course of two infectious albums and an EP with Girls, however, Owens has turned the burdens of his backstory into a musical boon, raiding formerly forbidden record collections and tearing through genres with the “what’s this, what’s this” exuberance of Jack Skellington discovering Christmas Town. Elvis Costello’s blue suede sneer! Spiritualized’s pilled-out gospel! What’s this? What’s this? “Misirlou!” Zeppelin III!
After Owens and his merry band take Manhattan, the Big Apple bites back in “New York City,” with the coercions of cops and drugs and guns personified by crack-sideman Vince Meghrouni’s skronky sax. Meghrouni’s spotlit solo, however, leaves few notes to chance, far more “No New York The Musical” than a true Contortion-ist freakout. Owens further amplifies the Broadway sheen by delivering his vocals in an affected, naïf’s voice: though the character he’s playing is a version of his younger self, the contrivance of acting—of conspicuous performance—inevitably thins the blood-and-guts immediacy of pure rock and roll.
Finding a balance between past and present, the acoustic ballad “A Broken Heart” stands out as the album’s most stirring track largely because the mature Owens remains present in the moment. Eulogizing an old affair and inviting interpretations as an “it’s not you it’s me” note to J.R. White, “A Broken Heart” hits unstaged reserves of emotion as Owens sings “Nothing like a face to take you back to the time, when it was you and I against the world, just you and I.”
Nostalgia, however, remains the album’s driving force. Replacing the manic style-hopping of Girls with a consistent period focus, Owens returns again and again to the jaunty, Peggy Sue shuffle he plied in “Magic” and “Saying I Love You” off Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Shooting for the three-minute pop perfection of Dion and Buddy Holly, Lysandre mostly lands square in mid-’70s Jackson Browne. Characteristically, Owens steers his version of yacht rock straight and true, without dipping into the arch posturing of GAYNGS; still, fans of Girls may be surprised by how thoroughly Owen’s surf, punk and shoegaze influences have been whitewashed from the mix.
More confounding than the breezy MOR, in authoring a cohesive narrative, Owens also abandons his previous knack for crafting climactic peaks and memorable characters. Girls spiked each of their releases with dramatic highs, from “Hellhole Ratrace” to “Carolina” to pretty much every other track on Father, Son, Holy Ghost, but the past Owens yearns for in Lysandre is a more simple kind of past, one without the devastating conflicts that might produce a greater dynamic range. Meanwhile, rather than create his love-interest in the flesh and blood mold of Girls’ “Laura” or “Jamie Marie,” Owens presents Lysandre as an abstraction, an ideal of love in the figure of a Princess-Bride leitmotif. The recurring, classical guitar return of “Lysandre’s Theme” is Robin Wright lovely, and about as easy to wrap your arms around.
Shorter in duration than Girls’ Broken Dreams Club EP, Lysandre drifts to a conclusion with “Part Of Me (Lysandre’s Epilogue)”—a track which immediately recalls Nilsson’s Midnight Cowboy version of “Everybody’s Talking.” This melodic similarity marks the rare instance where Owens seems to be mining not just a structure from the past but also trying to borrow a specific iconography, perhaps hoping to conclude Lysandre with a resonance the material hasn’t otherwise earned. By story’s end the boy, the girl and the band have gone their separate ways—as people do—only things don’t so much fall apart as peter out. Bonds and connections that seemed soul-deep and vital tend to dissipate with nothing more than time and distance, but before Owens can grapple with that truth in Lysandre, it’s already slipped away.