The first listen to Father, Son, Holy Ghost brings with it an almost eerie sense of familiarity, like these are songs you've been hearing your whole life even when you can't place them, and it's sometimes startling just how specific the references can be. The opening "Honey Bunny" has a shuffling beat and riff that is close to Paul Simon's "Kodachrome"; "Love Like a River" has a verse structure, chord changes, and tinkling piano arrangement almost identical to the Beatles' "Oh! Darlin", which was itself a direct rip of songs like "Blueberry Hill". "Magic" has bouncy sunshine pop chords that bring to mind something from a Have a Nice Day comp, "Die" has almost the same melody as Deep Purple's "Highway Star". The arrangements throughout have whirring organ, guitar fills, solos, flutes, and backing vocals borrowed from classic rock and placed exactly where you would expect them to be. And tying it all together is the production from Doug Boehm and the band, which sounds "old" simply because it sounds so incredibly good. This is one of the best-sounding rock records in years, redolent of a time when there was more money to spend in getting the basic tracks perfect, better ears to figure out which microphone should be used and precisely where it should be placed, and no pressure to make the mix ultra-hot for digitally-driven radio.
But if Father were merely an exceptionally recorded album built on obvious nods to the past, it wouldn't add up to much. Instead, the record comes alive with color and personality largely thanks to Girls' singer and songwriter Christopher Owens. He has a preternatural gift for turning clichés into into deeply affecting songs, and as they jump from one style to the next, from delicate acoustic balladry to noisy rave-ups, Owens' voice and point of view ground the record and make it distinctive. He is the center. As long as he is writing and singing, no matter what else is going on and being referenced, the music will be utterly his.
A lot of that is up to the timbre of his voice. On Album, Owens often had the pinched, clogged-sinus tone of Elvis Costello without the sneer, but here his vocals are warmer and softer, often bringing to mind the whispery tone of Elliott Smith. It's a testament to the care of the recording that even when he seems to be cooing into the microphone while the sometimes-thick arrangements grow around him, every word is clear and in balance. His voice exhibits both weariness and innocence and manages to convey hope and despair in equal measure. It also has an androgynous quality that fits the themes of Girls' music.
Owens' songs often seem to have an undefined and undirected desire for love and sex and friendship that exists outside of any one idea of sexuality. It's about feelings first, and the object of them second; who or what the singer wants is less important than the fact that the yearning is there, and it's unfulfilled, and that hurts. The lack of specificity can give Owens' songs a narcissistic slant, but it feels most like the self-obsession of early childhood, where lines between the self and the outside world aren't clear. "I can see so much clearer when I just close my eyes," he sings at one point, and it feels like the work of someone who has done a lot of thinking in the dark.
Indeed, so much about Owens' lyrical outlook, from how he uses shopworn imagery to the disarming simplicity of his declarations, conveys the sense of a child feeling around, discovering for the first time things we all found and absorbed years ago. So when he sings "My love is like a river/ She just keeps on rolling on" and "Lay my burden down by the river's edge" in "Love Like a River", it sounds like someone starting from the simplest conventions of the pop song and working inward to see if life actually functions the way that the songs tell us it does. Not since Jonathan Richman has there been a songwriter so willing to convey honest and deep feelings through the most basic pop syntax, and Owens also shares Richman's desire to use familiar song forms to get these essential messages across.
On Album, it was easy to hear the words and focus on Owens' backstory, which included being raised in a cult whose belief system contributed to the premature death of his brother. But these songs feel too essential and relatable to connect it to Owens' life alone. It's more about what we make of it as listeners and less about the damage of his early years. There's also a layer of awareness in his delivery, and he's able to tweak his own naïvteté in interesting ways. On the opening song, "Honey Bunny", he sings about how his mother loved and accepted him and told him that "everything will be all right" and then follows by saying, "I need a woman who loves me! me! me! me!"
This lyrical simplicity shouldn't obscure the fact that these are sharply constructed songs that take unusual turns. One of Girls' specialities is their willingness to go completely over the top but somehow keep us right there with them. Early single "Vomit" is one such epic, folding in soulful organ and the kind of wailing gospel-like vocals that signified "authenticity" when the Stones and Floyd ruled the world; but, with Owens' wounded voice in the middle of it all, even this bombastic song feels personal and even intimate. "Just a Song" begins with a gorgeously basic nylon string guitar figure and slowly drifts into a whispered refrain that stretches endlessly, Owens intoning, "Love, it's just a song," in his softest way as flutes swirl around him. He seems to be slipping into a widening hole that's half oceanic bliss and half fade-out death, and that combination nods to Spiritualized, an influence that was there on Album and is sometimes present here, particularly in the way Girls don't shy away from repetition and mix sonic decadence with wide-eyed spiritual yearning.
The largest canvas of all stretches across "Forgiveness", the eight-minute song that serves as the album's emotionally exhausting peak. It builds slowly and winds around in circles as Owens offers homilies about love and fear and redemption, and then it explodes into a melodic and moving guitar solo that releases the considerable tension. It's a big moment on an album that has so many they're almost hard to pick out, and it also happens to contain some of Owens' most straightforward writing: "You'll have to forgive me brother/ You'll have to forgive me sister/ And I'll have to forgive you if we're ever going to move on/ No one's going to find any answers/ If you're looking in the dark/ And looking for a reason to give up." He's right, but while there's nothing remotely new here, somehow the way Owens sings these words makes it feel like we're hearing them for the first time too.