Since departing from the critically adored Girls, Christopher Owens has been taking things small. His solo career has not felt like the continuation of the legacy of the group and more like an outlet to pursue more pet projects. Starting right away with 2013’s Lysandre, Owens released a short concept album loosely based around a girl he met in France. The record mined late 60s/early 70s singer/songwriters, most particularly Simon and Garfunkel whom he covered on his subsequent tour, where he played no songs by his former band.
Lysandre was a lovely little record but was a shadow of the epic-ness that the three Girls records exuded. Much like his solo debut, A New Testament again feels like the work of a songwriter experimenting rather than making his next bold step. A New Testament is entirely stooped in Gospel and country music, and is culled from various songs Owens has written since 2008. Much like Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, this record may be the culmination of years of a suppressed interest in country in which early records only hinted at. Whatever the reasoning might be, it’s unlikely that this album will win over new fans, but there is plenty to enjoy for those who love his heart-on-sleeve old school candor, if they can stomach all of Ed Efira’s pedal steel which is at times a sweet complement, and other times a tad cartoonish.
Like Lysandre before it, there are no epic sprawls, no proggy switchups, no punky outbursts. In its place is a set of good old-fashioned Americana. He may not have the self-removal that Jack White possesses, but upbeat knee-slappers like “Never Wanna See That Look Again,” and “Nobody’s Business” are great for separating yourself from the digital world for a few minutes. While the majority of this adheres to Owens’ aim to make a straightforward classic country LP, there are a couple tracks with a glimmer of Father, Son, Holy Ghostin them, like the soul-searching “It Comes Back to You” or the vibraphone-led “Overcoming Me” which builds gently to a swaying lullaby. That song and “I Just Can’t Live Without You (But I’m Still Alive)” close out the album, and are its strongest cuts. “I Just Can’t Live Without You”’s sighing melody and instrumentation cleanly break from form and sounds closest to the man underneath the cowboy hat. Although cast in a shroud of what sounds like a Southern Baptist church hymn, “Stephen” might also be the singer’s most personal account to date, detailing the death of his younger brother, and a life in the Children of God cult.
The samey nature of the album’s country twang can be a bit jarring at times, but there’s plenty of merits in A New Testament. Many may bemoan Owens reluctance to take the Girls kite and run with it, but its at the very least admirable to see him perusing music that feels right to him despite expectations, in the vein of all the Neil Youngs and Lou Reeds that have come before him.