March 5, 2014

Jonah Bromwich admits that, regrettably, yes, that is his cowboy hat.

“What is this shit?” sneered Greil Marcus in the pages of Rolling Stone, reacting to Bob Dylan’s 1970 record Self-Portrait, an album that Dylan had made to deliberately alienate his increasingly cult-like block of fans. During the SP sessions, Dylan threw every idea he had at the wall and both the parts that stuck and the parts that slowly oozed down to the floor made it onto the record.

As recently documented in an insightful analysis by Rob Horning, Self Portrait “fits with sociologist Theodore Roszak’s interpretation of Dylan as an exemplar of his generation’s embrace of self-expression for its own sake. Dylan’s was…a prescient retreat into the “Me” Decade. And Dylan modeled this withdrawal for his fans, who were already beginning to drift this way.”

The “Me” decade has near-turned into the “Me” half-century, and the trend of artists resorting to indulgence in the wake of admirable early careers marches steadily onward. Exploring new ways of making music is, of course, not always a bad thing—musical polyglots like Jack White, Julian Casablancas, Frankie Rose and Bradford Cox have managed to coax genuinely exciting albums out of their desire to explore a broad genre palette.  But for as many artists as have succeeded in making music under a new template, there are a great deal many more who have failed while trying to broaden their range. Christopher Owens, the former frontman of Girls epitomizes the trend, in his current musical style of choice: boring folksy songs without any kind of bite or soul to them.

There’s an echo of Dylan’s worst tendencies in Owens’ new song, “It Comes Back to You.”  It is sunny Wilco-esque, alt-country crawl, processional, easygoing.  But there’s none of the desperation, the creepy, revealing hunger for another person that made the slower songs on the Girls excellent debut, Album, such fascinating, voyeur-indulging listen. No, here, it’s the trite message that listeners will be able to predict upon hearing the first refrain of the words “you’ve got to give your love away.” The aphorism is fulfilled by the song’s title: give your love away, and it’ll come back to you. It’s the Chili Peppers message once again, but without the panache or all that leaping around.

There’s no risk to speak of here—not lyrically, not musically.  The genre tags on Soundcloud speak to the record’s confusion; it’s labeled “Country,” “Gospel,” “Pop” “Indie,” and “Indie Rock.” The only gospel to speak of is the desperate grab of some back-up vocals in the song’s final quarter, which serve to emphasize the emptiness at the song’s core.

We’ll see what the critical establishment does with this. The cult of personality that surrounds Owens is such that it might be elevated as a bold new artistic statement.  Often, criticism dwells more on the narrative “arc” of an artist’s career than the actual merits of a song or album itself. Owens is in a place where he could really use a comeback. If someone influential decides that “It Comes Back To You” represents that comeback then, by golly, it might just elevate him once again.

But this record is so unremarkable that it’s hard to see that happening. Songwriting thrives on specificity: that was something that Owens once seemed to understand.  Listen to him squeezing personality out of stoner accoutrements on “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker:” “I’ve got a cool guitar and a bag of marijuana, man.”  He was in on the joke, painting a vivid picture of himself as a wannabe hippie cliché.  Now that’s gone and only the cliché remains, except it’s a rung lower than the hippy, the singer-songwriter. And in his current incarnation, Owens does not even exude the personality or chops that elevate artists like Joshua Radin and Justin Vernon.

What’s so depressing about Owens’ turn to the simple and maudlin is the way in which this sort of faux-exploration is all but required by the critical establishment.  We demand that artists pull a Bowie, or a Madonna, or a Kanye, when the truth is, that very few of them actually have the talent or interest to spread themselves out in this way. Owens is just following the template; it’s the template that’s failed him and has left him failing his fans.

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