There’s a moment about halfway through “Vomit” — the lonely, sprawling, prog rock epic from the final Girls album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost — when the monsoon of sadness above Christopher Owens’ head finally, triumphantly subsides. “Come in to my heart,” he cries, his quivering voice backed by a church organ and an army of choir singers.
If that mid-song shift is symbolic of some revelatory climax in Owens’ career and life — one beset by mental illness, drugs, and the recurring trauma associated with a troubled upbringing — then A New Testament, his second solo album following the puzzling, uneven Lysandre, is the tidy resolution sequence, the part of the film where we get to see our main character slowly chiseling away at a better, happier existence. It’ll probably divide its listeners, especially considering how positive and direct it is, yet it’s a big, warm hug of an album that can be quite uplifting if you let it.
Musically, A New Testament is kitschy but never insincere. With its gospel-leaning backup vocals and its pedal steel guitar, “Nothing More Than Everything To Me” could almost pass for a John Denver song. However, despite his seemingly laughable comparison points, Owens never smirks nor resorts to a sardonic tone. “I wish you could see/ Oh my honey bee/ You’re nothing more than everything to me,” he sings, riding atop the song’s bright country shuffle of a beat. Similarly, “Over And Above Myself”, which is pitched as a Sonny & Cher-like duet, manages to evoke a whole slew of uncool influences while achieving something uncontrived and, at times, beautiful in its own right.
It’s the slower numbers, though, where Owens really thrives, even though he dials up the schmaltz too much from time to time. For instance, standout track “Oh My Love”, with its soaring chorus and blasts of wailing guitar, may be one of the best songs he’s ever written, a simple pop tune with the emotional grandeur of a chamber orchestra piece. The track is hardly original in terms of formula, yet Owens seems less concerned with breaking sonic barriers than he is finding the most fitting musical tropes for the story he’s trying to tell. In essence, A New Testament isn’t an emulative record out of convenience, or laziness, or nostalgia. Instead, it sounds the way that it does because it represents a rebirth in spirit and self-assurance for its songwriter. His lyrics alone may suggest someone who has discovered the meaning of the term “life-affirming,” but the album’s melodies, instrumentation, and overall aesthetic scope achieve the same thing.
If A New Testament fails in any fundamental way, though, it’s because it’s almost too serious to exist in the year 2014. As soon as the jaunty acoustic guitar strums kick in on “My Troubled Heart”, you, as the listener, are forced into making a snap judgement about how to approach the record. Is it a country rock pastiche a la Heidecker & Wood? Is Owens poking fun at the idea of being a born-again Christian? Is it supposed to be ironic in that wry, snickering, let’s-hold-a-mirror-to-the-ridiculousness-of-the-world type way? Any doubts about intention start to melt away as the album progresses, but this possible knee-jerk declaration of insincerity suggests that A New Testament may be too wholesome to be understood.
With that in mind, we can, perhaps, compare Owens’ record to a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell’s works were always expressions of simplicity and purity, conveying emotions in the most unpretentious of senses. However, he was also critiqued for fetishizing nostalgia and presenting history in a happy, smiley way that wasn’t at all accurate. A New Testament doesn’t look back at the past with the same fondness; we know Owens had a rough life for many years. But it is suspiciously squeaky-clean, especially for someone whose mantra of self-depreciation, as presented on the Girls cut “Lust For Life”, used to be “I’m just crazy/ Totally mad/ I’m just crazy/ And fucked in the head.”
Still, A New Testament makes for a comforting, occasionally gorgeous listen if you can set aside your preconceptions. It may look strange in reference to the rest of Owens’ career in music, but that’s okay. Like that otherworldly shift in tone on “Vomit” reminds us, sometimes the clouds part and clarity sets in when we think that neither is possible. It’s just up to us to remind ourselves that “happiness” can be cool after all.
Essential Tracks: “Oh My Love”, “Nothing More Than Everything To Me”