Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the second album by the San Francisco band Girls, opens with a crush song called “Honey Bunny.” The title is well-worn and from nowhere in particular: It’s Bugs Bunny’s girlfriend; it’s Amanda Plummer’s character in Pulp Fiction; it’s a dopey name people call their partners in love and jest. If you’ve heard rock and roll music before, you’ll recognize the sound: a surf-style guitar ornament so endlessly recycled nobody knows if it’s from “Pipeline” or not anymore, a little of T. Rex’s boys-in-makeup boogie, the pilled-up twitch of early Elvis Costello or ‘80s power-pop, and a weary gospel comedown I’d attribute to Spiritualized if the Beatles hadn’t beaten them to it.
The hyper-references here aren’t just a critic’s narcissism. What’s unusual to me about “Honey Bunny” — and all of Father, really — is not that I can play spot-the-influence with it, but that the unifying theme of the influences is as big and abstract as it is: basically, guitar-based, song-oriented music made by white people between 1950 and 1990. Nothing about Girls’ sound is original, but there’s no band making music with their scope either, and no band making it so seamlessly. When a friend first heard “Honey Bunny,” she said she’d rather just listen to “the real thing.” “What real thing?” I asked. No answer.
At the center is Girls’ singer and songwriter, Christopher Owens. On Father’s uptempo songs, it sounds like his voice is being whipped out of him squeak by squeak; on the ballads — and most of the album ends up being ballads — it sounds like it’s trickling out of his throat. Wherever he goes, he’s a wet noodle, a hopeless romantic. He spends most of “Honey Bunny” whining about how the girls don’t like him. On the bridge, the band slows to a crawl and Owens takes the spotlight to sing about how much his mom loved him as a child – a love so true and tender that he worries he’ll never experience anything so meaningful again. I’ve always figured this was every heterosexual guy’s fantasy and heterosexual girl’s nightmare: to be mothered when he’s hurt and seduced when he’s horny. If the subtext isn’t enough to turn off the self-respecting women of the world, Owens finishes the bridge by singing, “I need a woman who loves me, me, me, me, me, me, yeh!,” as though he’s finally remembered who the song is really about.
Most of Father works like that. It reels you in then brushes you off; it listens to you cry when you’re having a hard time then it writes a song about you; it’s intimate one minute and detached the next. Short, simple, pretty songs like “Love Like a River” or “Magic” work under the assumption that music is more furniture than art – anonymous products that follow rules to produce intended effects. Here, Owens sounds like he’s consciously trying to replicate the charming pop-rock of ’60s and ’70s radio: the Monkees, the Lovin Spoonful, the Turtles — bands who weren’t going to complicate your life with problems or ideas. But other parts of the album — “Vomit,” “My Ma” and “Forgiveness” — are the musical equivalent of therapy; hot, six- and eight-minute-long confessions that unravel in guitar noise and gospel singers; songs anchored by lines so blunt and artless it seems rude — not to mention embarrassing — to even transcribe them. And then there’s “Just a Song” and “Alex,” songs where Owens comes off like the melancholy observer, the guy who never steps out of his situation because he’s never really stepped into it. “Alex has a band,” he sings cooly, “so who cares about war? If somebody out there dies, well who cares?” It’s a portrait, and probably a familiar one: the artist who comforts himself in a self-made, self-contained world.
When Girls released Album in 2009, there was a lot of talk about Owens’ own troubled life: raised in a cult, bounced around from place to place, never went to school, and was ostensibly rescued by a multi-millionaire while living as a stoned gutterpunk in San Antonio. Whether the confessional songs are about him or not is, in 2011, irrelevant. He’s constructed an identity whose biggest draw is how self-contradictory it is. Some days, Owens believes in the healing power of music. Other days, he just wants to, but can’t.
I was born in 1982. Call us Generation Y, the Millenials, Echo Boomers. We were suckled on irony. We were suckled on the idea that everything under the sun had already been done. We’re marked both by detachment and by a tendency to prolong adolescence: We want everything to be simple and warm, like when we were kids, but we know it can’t be. We watched satires like The Simpsons and Seinfeld – shows that were self-aware; shows that might borrow from some earlier cultural moment — I Love Lucy, maybe — to make a little joke, but also to reach a particular emotional tone we’re all familiar with.
Father works the same way. “Vomit” wants to reach out and pierce our hard hearts; “Alex” is all hard-heartedness. We know that the gospel breakdowns are corny, but we’ve also probably all had the experience of collapsing in the arms of someone who, like, really understands — and then we’ve probably had the experience of downplaying it later.
Owens is smart about picking his clichés and even smarter about arranging them. At best, one song on Father might make you question the feeling you had while listening to the song that came before it. But is it an intellectual exercise? No. It sounds like Owens knows what he’s doing, but most of what he’s doing is coming from the heart. What makes Father brilliant, or at least painfully real, is that Owens has the guts to show just how fucked up and deluded his heart can be.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost is out now via True Panther Sounds.