February 6, 2013

Lysandre Reamed

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When Christopher Owens, vocalist of indie-pop duo, Girls, broke the news of the band’s imminent break- up on his Twitter feed months prior to the event, I mourned the tragedy with an acute pain rivaled only by the loss of a similarly beloved band of my youth, The Fugees. The only medicine to numb the dull ache created by the disintegration of Girls was the possibility of a solo effort from Owens. Perhaps Owens, like Lauryn Hill of The Fugees, would emerge from the ashes of inner-band turmoil to release a stunning debut album, undiluted in sound and unrivaled in artistry, as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill turned to be. And, after months of hollowness in which the absence of Girls created a conspicuous void within the music scene, Lysandre, Christopher Owens’ debut album, was released.

This, in actuality, proved to be the greatest tragedy of all.

You see, Lysandre, while not uniformly disastrous in each of its 11 tracks, is an outright disappointment. Just 28 minutes long and played solely in the key of A (save for the final song), the album details Owens’ first tour experience, taking him from the U.S. to France, where he ultimately falls in love with a girl, Lysandre. Lysandre’s linear story-telling is continuous, with every song featuring an instrumental motif called “Lysandre’s Theme.” Owens has stated that the album is meant to sound like “a minstrel telling his tale,” but what becomes of his intended melodic, measured narrative is actually a strange, medieval satire. While the haunting of “Lysandre’s Theme” threading each track sometimes sounds like “Greensleeves,” it more often than not sounds incongruously like a Jimmy Buffet cover band. I doubt anyone has ever requested of Owens to add more ska-saxophone (think Saturday Night Live theme song) and Renaissance fair flute to his poignant angst, yet this is what he gives us. The end result is outlandish. The album’s ultimate impression is one of frivolity, not the usual sensitivity of Owens’ past projects.

In the aftermath of the immense sophomoric success of Girls’ last album, the contrast in quality between Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Lysandre is made all the more apparent. I once critiqued, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost [has] the ability to warm our lonely heart right before the next ballad, bleeding feeling, breaks it yet again” — which, in my typically conservative speech, is the most ardent of applause. However, since Lysandre is 50 percent more Owens and 50 percent less Chet “JR” White (Christopher’s songwriting partner in Girls), it is plausibly 100 percent more inferior. While it is common knowledge that the discordant personal relationship between Owens and JR dissolved the band, their harmonious professional relationship produced truly magnificent work. Only in light of their split and in light of Lysandre’s resounding failure is the songwriting mastery of JR most dearly missed. In fact, Owens himself has confessed that JR is the brains behind Girls’ concept and sound, a sound which has ranged from surf pop to psychadelia to gospel, to create their unique retro-modernist feel. But if JR is the brains, does that make Owens no more than a face? Considering the puffery that is Lysandre and his recent jaunt as a model in Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent campaign, Owens has not yet proved the opposite to be true.

Without the complement of JR, there is no warm messiness, no sweet androgyny of sound. What’s left is just Christopher Owens, and therein lies the crux of Lysandre’s despair. So much of Owens (and all his insecurities) takes up the content in Lysandre that it’s easy to forget the album was meant to be about someone else. Owens used to be the (lovingly) greasy-haired coverboy of all things broken-hearted. His talent was considered to be immense but thus far never fully tapped. And now that we’ve tapped it, the mystique of Owens’ former character, one surrounded in his little-boy-lost routine, is gone. Owens used to embody the youth and romance in being fatally fucked up, but now there is no youth, no romance — only what’s fucked up.

What happened to the extraordinary boy out of extraordinary circumstance? The boy who escaped the polyamorous Children of God cult, who was homeless and heroin-addicted by puberty, who was best friends with an eccentric oil baron billionaire? What happened to the boy with the heartbreaking history, with all the stories to tell? In the cold light of day, his magic has dissipated, and all that’s left is a kid — skinny, self-absorbed and (worst of all) ordinary. Knocked off his pedestal, Owens is just like us. In the music industry, we seek a fantastical escape from our humdrum lives, a portal into the beyond, not a mirror unto ourselves. Christopher Owens is no Lauryn Hill, no Beyoncé. Though possibly premature, his cataclysmic rise and fall thus far emulates that of Pete Doherty, post-Babyshambles. In the saddest could’ve-been but never-was tale ever told, Christopher Owens becomes the cliché he tried so hard to avoid. Perhaps, this is the true tale the minstrel should be telling.

Original Author: Alice Wang