‘Lysandre’s Theme’, the near title-track from Lysandre, opens Christopher Owens’ first solo record and remains a constant motif throughout. A dream-like arrangement of flute and delicate guitar plucks that harks back throughout the songs, it transports the listener back to courtships of a bygone age, very nearly sounding like it could score the switchover between acts in any of Shakespeare’s late romances.
Quite apt really, given that this latest effort from the former Girls frontman, his first solo record since parting ways with the San Fran group back in July, has been described by Owens himself as a “narrative album” based upon a single relationship, one that ended years ago but with repercussions that are felt still.
It seems a smart move to focus on such an intimate topic for a premiere lone effort, and especially packaging it in such a way. Girls were, by the singer’s own admission, a band that conceptually never clicked, more than a solo outlet but with only two constant players and an ever-rotating array of session and live musicians. Lysandre gives Owens, forever an idealist in his work despite his laidback posturings, the opportunity to produce what he has always been aiming for: a single, self-contained piece of art.
His former band’s last record, 2011’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost, while widely lauded, including by our very selves, was an assorted display of various styles, genres, topics and tempos. The Buddy Holly-indebted ‘Saying I Love You’ sits right next to sorrowful ode ‘My Ma’ and seven minute-long scuzz epic ‘Vomit’. The tracklist of songs, while having an abundance of quality, missed a fluid connected factor.
Owens had tried to do this grand arching kind of thing before, to appropriate a certain snippet of music that harks nostalgically back to a certain time and place. ‘Die’, track four from the band’s last album, is centred around a single riff, a murky and grungy riff that the guitarist and JR (the band’s co-founder and bassist) used to jam for years at rehearsals, backstage and at parties and the like. But ‘Lysandre’s Theme’ triumphs where ‘Die’ fails. While the latter feels uncomfortable, the sound of a band placing self-gratification before fluency and rhythm, the ever-present tune running through the entirety of this new record never ever sounds forced. Instead Owens, with great precision, always finds a way to lead each of the numbers back to this flute-led partitioning.
The choice of setting this evening would have been treated with as equal care; Central London’s St Giles-in-the-Fields Church being a world away from Girls’ previous (and sadly, quite disappointing) London outing at the HMV Forum. As you can tell by its advertiser-purchased name, it’s a far stretch from the intimacy of this seated chapel. And while Owens is not alone this evening, backed by a drummer, secondary guitarist, multi-tasking flutist/saxophonists and a duet of backing singers, it’s still very much a solo performance in terms of artistic direction. In a recent interview Owens has mentioned how being in a band brought forth the added pressure of having to adhere to outside expectations, that conversely a solo artist was free to pursue whatever he or she pleased, and tonight Owens has that very freedom.
Treating the quietly receptive audience to a handful of cover songs following a straight-run of his LP’s modest 30 minute duration, Owens seems like a man entirely at peace. The fidgeting and uneasy figure the singer often struck on previous Girls tours, one that had to be weaned off drugs each time he hit the road, seems entirely different from how he currently appears, telling 6 Music’s Lauren Laverne on air earlier this week that he was feeling contented with things at the moment. After tonight’s very show, Owens takes to Twitter to relay how emotional and grateful these first series of shows have made him.
But while some quite stirring renditions of Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and more may be what Owens feels like doing at the moment, it’s not particularly what the crowd here this evening came to see. Renditions of the more acoustic-leaning Girls tracks would be far greater desired, with several of the songs from the Broken Dreams Club EP sitting especially close to the orchestrated sound of Lysandre. But you get the feeling this is precisely what Owens is trying to distance himself from, at least for the time being. Tonight is instead all about moving forwards.
As a solo artist, Owens allows his key strength to come to the fore. His masterfully understated songwriting, truthful and telling, yet simplistic and universal, is on display like it had previously only sporadically been when in Girls. ‘A Broken Heart’ and ‘Everywhere I Know’ are songs that perfectly capture “That time it was us against the world / Just you and I”, while ‘Here We Go’ and its sister track, ‘Here We Go Again’ coming later, conjure that get-up-and-go stirrings of any new whirlwind romance.
Owens ends the performance by handing out a collection of roses and lillies that previously decorated the stage to those in the front row, before doing the same to those near the aisles on his way out the back exit. While he seems nervous at a handful of moments throughout the evening, alternating awkwardly between standing and performing seated, this truly seems to be the place the singer wants to be at this given moment. Now we just need a few more solo albums to come to fill the perfect set.