Cloaked in gaudy and presumedly self-aware Americana, we should surmise that by ‘A New Testament’ Christopher Owens is referring to a new statement in his own discography, as opposed to a revelatory contribution in a wider sense. This record is soaked in the recipes of folk and country music. Heart on the sleeve lyricism is met with gorgeous, bounding acoustic guitars and full-bodied gospel backing; all of which serve to provide a warm and often rousing collection of songs. Yet for all its luxuriousness and ecclesiastical throwbacks, there is a frustrating sting: why is Christopher Owens making these albums?
As a development of his song writing (in a solo capacity), this album certainly beats Lysandre which Owens released in 2013. Similarly Lysandre drew a set of beautifully orchestrated, and heartfelt, ballads together through a tenuous narrative form. On ‘A New Testament’ there are shadows of what Lysandre was missing but largely the problem remains the same, and awkwardly (from a critical standpoint) it’s not the easiest problem to put into words. The best way of understanding the issue is to return to Owens’ work with Girls, the band through which he achieved the level of acclaim he now enjoys. In particular let’s focus in on one specific Girls track, ‘Love Like a River’, from their 2011 album ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’. It is set up with a simple blues-pop structure complete with hammond organ and glowing backing vocals. In many ways not disimilar from the composition of ‘A New Testament’, yet there is something else. Between the perfections there are gaps, moments of space which Owens’ voice cuts through with such longing. Compared now to ‘A Heart Akin the Wind’ from his most recent release, it is clear that an element has been lost. Something intangible but crucial, a wistful pathos that before rumbled beneath the pop music has been erased by nostalgic genre-pastiche.
This is not to say that this album is bad at all. In fact it is a very good collection of country songs, most notably the fantastic ‘Nothing More Than Everything To Me’, which is most likely the closest we will ever get to a millennial hoe-down. The lyrics on the album flick between effective bluntness “There’s a look in your eyes, every time I say goodbye, and I never want to see that look again”, to clumsy clichés, “Just the two of us, I’ve got you and you’ve got me”. Essentially, fans of Christopher Owens as a songwriter, may leave this album with an angst that longs for something a with a little more venom under the skin. Owens has recorded a classically framed country record that aims to honour tradition, but as with Lysandre it lacks the human phantom that haunts his earlier work. In biblical terms, it tells the stories we know the best - those of the father and the son - but misses Owens’ greatest gift: the holy ghost.
Words: Angus Harrison