An oft-cited blurb from John H. Updike ’54 about Nabokov reads, “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written…ecstatically.” Part of the genesis of the lingual enthusiasm that so characterizes Nabokov’s work is his status as an outsider to American culture, and his joy as a newcomer to its language and cultural forms. Christopher Owens, the mastermind behind Girls, was born into the famous cult, Children of God, which forbade its members from partaking of pop culture and, most significantly, rock music. A relatively recent convert to somewhat less-cultish indie music, Owens and bandmate JR White burst onto the music scene with their idiosyncratic, joyous debut “Album.” The new “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” is an absolute masterpiece rife with an unadulterated joy of music; each note on the record is played with a child’s exuberance at learning there is a world, and a whole, expressive language to which there is no limit.
Girls have traded the tight arrangements of their first album for shambolic pop gems that allow for subtler dynamics. On “Alex,” the steady sixteenth notes on the hi-hat alleviate the gurgling bass and rolling guitars, before the song abruptly stretches into halftime, slinging the song into one of the most beautiful passages on the album. A clenched, hopeful electric guitar lays staccato notes over a warm acoustic guitar that doubles them an octave down. The drums place peaceful snare accents under the unexpected relief before kicking the momentum up again. The guitars return—one droning, the other swaying in Smashing Pumpkins-esque compression.
Though Owens’s refined melodies render the lyrics almost superfluous, they remain crucial to the album’s appeal. Almost every track takes love or longing head on, but he elegantly subverts his clichés through layers of bisexuality, trauma-patient quirk, and some vaguely oedipal lines—as on the rampaging surf rocker “Honey Bunny” when he sings, “Mama / She really loved me…I need a woman who loves me.” On “Alex,” Owens sings, “Alex has black hair / Who cares? / Well, I do.” The song’s simple lyrics derive tremendous pathos from the elation of the music, but more than anything, Owens’s earnest delivery sells the line. To every cliché, there’s an ounce of truth—especially to that one—and given the enthusiasm of an incredibly talented pop auteur who somehow lived much of his existence outside pop’s deadening, repetitious influence, even clichés resound as if they’re being uttered for the first time.
The exception to this rule is, “How Can I Say I Love You,” the goofy music and irritating refrain of which—“How can I say I love you?”—grates with the irritation of excessive irony. Within the context of the album, it seems more like a defiant extension of Girls’s general fascination with kitsch, but it remains one of the albums weakest tracks.. Occasionally, as on the bombastic “Die,” they fail to reappropriate pop music forms and settle, instead, for simple emulation. On these tracks, their joy translates into self-indulgence. “How Can I Say I Love You,” however, signals a tonal shift on the album, away from Beach Boys pop, towards prog rock’s epic codas and gospel back-up singers—see “Vomit.” The synthesized strings, sinewy acoustic guitar, and steadily building drums on “Just a Song” are reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s most lush, orchestral folk rock. He sings again and again “Love / Love / Love / Love / It’s just a song,” a marked emotional departure from much of the album. The sort of manic energy embodied in this shift keeps the album lively and honest. “Forgiveness,” too, washes the peppy swagger of “Magic” into a lovingly crafted seven minutes and 49 seconds of heartbeat-slow, soothing rock music about forgiveness and hope, accompanied by a full-on redemptive guitar rockout at the end.
Not every album wants to be loved—some just want to manipulate your emotions, or freak you out. But “Father, Son, Holy Ghost” is an album that takes seriously its own power as a work of art, and an intimate object of affection. Owens wants to be heard not out of thirst for fame, but for the meaning he personally knows good music can hold to those who seek it. The record is a tender, nuanced reflection on the sorts of pervasive, eternally enticing themes that, only when raised over roiling organs, through tight harmony or loudly atop full-throated guitars, can seem for an infinitely repeatable half hour to make sense. This album brings with it all the joy that comes from hearing “Alex has blue eyes / Who cares?” and realizing that somehow you do.
—Staff writer Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at email@example.com.