Quite honestly, had the stepping stone EP, Broken Dreams Club not been released, I would’ve been completely surprised at the quantum leap between Girls’ innocuous debut Album and their follow-up Father, Son, Holy Ghost. To sum Album up, it was clear that Christopher Owens had a lot to say (and trust me, he does, and I’ll get to that later, since it’s practically impossible to talk about this album without mentioning the personal factors influenced), and owned a few records from the 60’s (the Beach Boys) and 70’s (Iggy Pop) to do so, but outside of one track (the hipster anthem “Lust for Life” – one of the best singles of a great year), he had trouble expressing it all. Someone tell me then, how in two years, he managed to create an album full of the hard-hitting emotions of “Lust for Life” while ever sacrificing the music in Father, Son, Holy Ghost?
The differences between Album and Father, Son, Holy Ghost are clear from the title itself. Albumwas probably the safest choice of an album title, offensive in its inoffensiveness, that kid who did not want to dip his big toe in the ocean because he heard about sharks from a friend who saw a clip from Jaws two years ago. Father, Son, Holy Ghost on the other hand, is epic (not a word that I use lightly, mind you). Yes, there are major religious implications, but this is not a religious record, since Christopher Owens has probably had more than a lifetime’s worth of fighting religious cults. For those who don’t know, the brief biography of Mr. Owens is as follows (which could easily be adapted into an actual novel or film, assuming he actually becomes famous enough): his mother was a practicing Children of God, and due to their anti-medicine stance, let Owens’ brother die to pneumonia, as well as prostituting herself in front of Christopher. He eventually ran away from home, and was taken in by Stanley Marsh, who just so happened to be a philanthropist and an artist of sorts. Seriously, if I run away, what are the chances that I’ll run into someone like that?
But just because a title – and I’m quite fond of the cover as well – is epic doesn’t necessarily mean its music is, but Father, Son, Holy Ghost delivers. Opener “Honey Bunny,” obviously lifted as a single as it recaptures the magic of “Lust for Life” in its own way, immediately starts the album off with an undeniably catchy, shuffling beat. But the best tracks to hear just how much the band has grown in the past two years is “Die” and “Vomit.” While the band showed that they were fond of Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the Beach Boys, they’ve expanded their musical palette to include Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground. Christopher Owens, in an interview with Pitchfork, notes that “Die” was influenced by Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” It begins with a brief in-your-face feedback before launching into the most immediate riff that Girls has ever produced, with apocalyptic lyrics like “No, nothing’s gonna be alright / No, we’re all gonna get fucked up tonight.”
The nicely named “Vomit” is even better (though searching the terms “Girls” and “Vomit” on youtube will certainly yield more entertaining videos than the track). It’s the clear centerpiece of the album, since afterwards the band chooses to fill the last half of the album with mostly slowly-developing slowcore tracks. Still though, “Vomit” (which, according to Owens, is “about an obsessive, unhealthy need for co-dependency. I wrote it because my girlfriend at the time would go out constantly and never invite me or tell me where she was. I would literally go around town, [sings] “Looking for you, baby””), makes the best use of gospel singers in a long time, probably since Blur’s “Tender.” The solo that begins bubbling in at the 2:15 mark with Owens’ repeated “And round and round and round and down and down and down” is just as heavy as the entirety of “Die” and lingers around when the verse comes in, reminiscent of John Cale’s touches on the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” The best moments of the song, however, is once it breaks free of its soft-loud dynamic shifts and enters its second part (around the 4:30 mark), with Owens’ romantic mantra “Come into my heart” and the female voice recreating Clare Torry’s performance on “The Great Gig in the Sky” in the background (the 5:44 mark and onwards). So yeah, 5-star track, and one the best songs to come out of 2011.
Many of the tracks have to do with Owens’ relationship with his mother, and now that we have the context to understand what went on between them, and a better way of expressing himself, these tracks are all on-point. “Honey Bunny,” for example, breaks in the middle of its less than 3-minute runtime (the shortest track on the album), and Owens enters a quick ballad for his mother (who he has reconciled with after she’s renounced her religion), “Mama…she really loved me” he begins, and ends with “I need a woman who loves me me me me me me YEAH!” (all capitals for emphasis, because it’s seriously infectiously fun) catapulting us back into the original beat. And obviously there’s the fifth track, “My Ma,” with its touching closing lyric, “I’m looking for meaning in my life / and you, my Ma.”
Whereas most of the songs on the album boast great hooks, “Alex,” (which, following “Laura,” continues the sophomore track being a one-word title with a girl’s name), has no real chorus, but each verse is keeper, “Alex has a band / So who cares about war? / If somebody somewhere dies / Well, who cares? No, you don’t” and “You’ve got a lovely smile / I could spend a while with that smile” and “Alex has a boyfriend / Oh well, I’m in hell.” I sympathize. If you enjoyed “Hellhole Ratrace” off Album, you’re likely to enjoy both slowly-developing slowcore songs on the second half, “Just a Song” and “Forgiveness.” They’re both solid tunes – just weak in the sense that they don’t feature the expansive palette that “Vomit” did. Truthfully, the album’s weakest songs are its closing ones – Mark Richardson points out the structural similarities between “Love Like a River” and the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling,” but this one doesn’t have the affect or affecting singing of the latter, and while closer “Jamie Marie” always sounds pleasant, I can never remember what it sounded like.
In 2012, Christopher Owens severed his ties with the band and a year later, released a solo album that did nothing else but prove that while the lyrics and the emotion of Father, Son, Holy Ghostare certainly his own, the music owes a lot to the band as a whole.
I’m just trying to say it’s unlikely we’ll see something as magical as Father, Son, Holy Ghost ever again – one of the best albums of 2011.