You’re probably familiar with Christopher Owens’ back story by now, but here’s a whistlestop tour of the journey that’s brought him to this point for the uninitiated; you’d need quite the imagination to make it up. He grew up in the travelling religious cult Children of God, escaped in his teens whilst in Slovenia, was taken under the wing of a Texas oil billionaire upon his arrival in Amarillo, and eventually moved to San Francisco to begin making music. Everything about Owens seems just a little bit other-worldly; for example, he’s disarmingly honest about his ongoing battle with drug addiction where so many of his contemporaries go to lengths to keep their own under wraps. It’s also probably true that you can add, to the list of unlikely happenings above, the disbandment of his band, Girls, just as they seemed on the cusp of real success.
After Father, Son, Holy Ghost met with rave reviews and their gigs branched out from unremarkable indie pop affairs to expansive, nuanced rock and roll shows, Owens and his bandmate Chet White looked to be on the verge of something special; perhaps it was actually in keeping, then, with Owens’ past that they chose that moment to call it quits. Owens’ solo debut, Lysandre, lent credence to suggestions that his songwriting alone might not have been the sole factor in the excellence of Girls’ output; indeed, that album, with its strange medieval leanings, was too stylistically diffuse to allow the listener to focus on what makes Owens’ music so good - its simplicity.
That first Girls record, Album, was scored through with gorgeously straightforward pop songs, and you kind of get the impression that, with such a hectic and unusual life to date, Owens feels he needs to avoid complications in his music; perhaps it’s the only place that allows him some clarity of thought. There’s certainly evidence for that suggestion on A New Testament, which - as the title suggests - is hugely in thrall to gospel stylings. The opening track, “My Troubled Heart”, interpolates “Early in the Morning”, made famous by the squeaky-clean folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary; Mad Men viewers, fittingly, might also recognise it from an episode in which a Catholic priest sang it. It lays down a blueprint for the record, sonically; a gospel choir backing Owens is a new move, whilst the cleanliness and simplicity of the both the arrangements and the instrumentation is something he’s been making his calling card since the Girls days.
A New Testament plays like a paean to Americana of fifty years ago; noodling electric guitars sit alongside wistful slide on “Nothing More Than Everything to Me”, “Heart Akin the Wind” sounds like something that Willie Nelson forgot to record - Owens certainly never shies away from country territory on this LP - and “Never Wanna See That Look Again” is abound with playful enthusiasm - sonically at least - and lyrically, is preoccupied with good old-fashioned drunken regret; it's like something you could have plucked from a pop musical.
Ultimately, therefore, quite what you make of A New Testament is really dependent on whether you have the stomach for this sort of music. It’s lyrically rudimentary, as has always been the case with Owens’ work, but the old-timey sound of most of the tracks on here really seems to accentuate it; again, depending on your outlook, it either makes that particular failing more glaring, or actually suits the style that Owens is aiming for. On the one hand, it’s hugely to Owens’ credit that he’s turned his hand at a slew of different styles in assured fashion to date, but neither this album nor Lysandre really hold the universal pop appeal of Girls’ output, either.