Girls’ sophomore album rocks
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When the latest Girls album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, was released on Sept. 13, my initial reaction upon listening was a mild confusion. Father, Son, Holy Ghost simultaneously evokes two separate—and contradictory—emotions: familiarity and foreignness. I decided to wait a few weeks before writing a review. Upon further listening, the indie duo’s album has revealed itself to be an emotionally complex work of remarkable sincerity; it is one of the best albums of the year.
Their outstanding debut album, 2008’s Album, and follow up EP Broken Hearts Club were immensely personal works that immediately welcomed the listener. The albums were mostly about love and heartbreak, written in a way that reflected the life experiences of lead singer and songwriter Christopher Owens, but sung with a form of teenage vulnerability that evokes the music of the Beach Boys or Buddy Holly. Before forming Girls, Owens grew up in the Children of God religious cult, seeing his mother prostituted, and eventually ran away in his teens. Playing music was one of the few freedoms afforded to him. After an early adulthood colored by transiency, drug abuse and prostitution himself, he began to take music more seriously and eventually met Chet White, the other half of the band. Knowing Owens’ background only enhances the listening experience, as his work comes across not as an immature naïveté, but as a frank honesty that we all value from our musicians.
The 11 tracks lyrically confront several issues colored by Owens’ life: religion, self-destructive tendencies and his relationship with his mother, but there is still that youthful desire to love and be loved that drives Girls’ music. Album opener “Honey Bunny” is a rollicking surf-rock song that sings of his desire for “a woman who loves me.” It is ambiguous as to whether Owens is referring to a potential lover or his mother.
“Die” is a pleasant surprise, a track unlike any of their past work, abandoning sentimental pop arrangements and earnest songwriting for a hard-driving, heavy metal sound that would not seem out of place on a Motorhead or Guns N’ Roses album (pre-Chinese Democracy, of course). There is no chorus in the song, just three simple verses colored with repetitions of the phrases, “nothing’s gonna be all right” and “all gonna die.” But when sung by Owens’ tortured and vulnerable voice, the emotional impact is not stark, crushing nihilism, but rather an angst borne of frustration with how messed up and unfair life can be sometimes. There is a meandering instrumental at the end of “Die” that acts as a precursor to the rest of the album, and a turn towards more traditional songwriting. Nonetheless, the track reminds you of the seriousness that lurks beneath the innocent baroque pop veneer of Girls’ music.
Lyrically, Girls’ strengths lie in the repetition and emphasis of simple ideas or words that we all know and are familiar with. Even their shortcomings serve to benefit their music. Owens is a gifted songwriter, but his vocal ability is limited. On the higher notes, his voice degenerates to one reminiscent of a (very) poor man’s Elvis Costello, but this weakness only serves to underscore the vulnerability at the core of Girls’ music. Real people don’t express their emotions in perfect pitch, they struggle to find the words, and even when they find the words, they don’t come out the way we always intend.
The three song sequence of “Saying I Love You,” “My Ma” and “Vomit” represents the emotional core at the heart of the album, all of them lyrically direct, but relying on trancelike chants of remarkable emotional intensity. “My Ma” is about loneliness and confusion, and is grounded by Owens’ childlike refrain, “and you my Ma,” injecting the song with a tenderness but also confronting his challenging real-life relationship with his mother. “Vomit” is a rambling, spiritual opus that begins with a longing for love; halfway through the song, Owens’ ragged voice is joined by gospel singers and an organ, all while chanting, “Come in to my heart, my love.” It is not so much a meditation on emotion as it is a prayer to someone whom he cares deeply about.
What sets Father, Son, Holy Ghost apart from Girls’ past work is the step up in maturity. The best song that the duo has produced to this day is “Hellhole Ratrace,” the standout track from Album. It accurately articulates a frustration with heartbreak, and youthful optimism that things would improve. On Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls approaches that peak with the song “Forgiveness.” The track starts slow, with a gentle whispering that “nothing’s gonna get any better,” but finishing eight minutes later, an older, mature Owens finally realizes that he “can see so much clearer / When I just close my eyes.” His eyes have witnessed much throughout his life, yet by closing his eyes and reflecting on what he has seen, he actually sees everything in a different light.
What holds the album together is Owens’ openness and willingness to be emotionally vulnerable. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is an exhaustive defense and exultation of the emotions universal to the human condition: love and heartbreak.