When Girls hit the scene two years ago, achieving widespread popularity didn’t appear to be of particular concern. Neither their band name nor the highly literal title of their first EP, Album, was bound to get them many hits on Google. In addition, they released a very NSFW music video in which an erect penis is used as a microphone, effectively limiting its distribution windows.
But now, bolstered by two years of critical adoration and a brilliant new EP, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, Girls is in a better position to break out of their underground shell. The release highlights the band’s increasing songwriting complexity and ability to assemble past influences into a retro sound that is like no other in music today.
“Honey Bunny” opens the album with an energetic surf–pop beat. “I know you’re out there/you might be right around the corner/and you’ll be the girl that I love,” sings a lighthearted Christopher Owens. But toward the end of the song the beat suddenly slows into a tender bridge about his mother’s love. The vulnerable vocals add a depth to the singer’s current search for a girlfriend by revealing how much is at stake. It is the first of many unexpected shifts that keep the songs exciting and unpredictable.
The album’s themes — love, forgiveness, hope, despair — are appropriate given its weighty title and Owens’ personal backstory. Raised amongst the Children of God cult in California, his childhood was certainly traumatic — his brother died of pneumonia because the group didn’t believe in antibiotics. Eventually Owens escaped at age 16 and pursued a career as an artist, but his relationship with his mother and his past undoubtedly influences his songwriting. Brooding, warm, vulnerable, his voice is able to elevate the most simplistic of lyrics to utter profundity.
Girls primarily craft epic tracks that are easy to get lost in, eschewing typical song structure for flowing, meandering journeys. “Vomit,” like “Honey Bunny,” is another search for love. “Nights I spend alone/I spend ‘em runnin’ ‘round looking for you, baby,” repeats Owens. Around his voice the instruments build over six minutes, from a quiet guitar bit to eventually a wailing solo accompanied by gospel singing and even an organ.
The album’s most surprising track, “Die,” immediately channels classic rock with its riff-heavy, blood-pumping opening and anxiety-filled lyrics: “No, nothing’s gonna be alright/No, we’re all gonna get fucked up tonight.” But, like Clapton’s “Layla,” the song is composed of two movements, and the second breaks the pulsating tension and descends into some of the most beautiful instrumentals of recent memory, a truly mesmerizing and unexpected detour.
Father, Son, Holy Ghost ran a great risk of being schizophrenic. Songs like “Honey Bunny” and “Die” are juxtaposed with intensely quiet ballads about the singer’s complicated relationship with his mother (in “Myma”) and about his process of atonement (in “Forgivement”). But Owens’ voice is able to maintain a unity across songs despite so many stylistic influences. He can build entire sections of songs around a single repeating phrase and yet evoke multiple emotions all at once, and all the various feelings across the tracks converge into a powerful and refreshing perspective on life.
5/5 Stars Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost 99–cent download: “Die” Good for: Getting lost in unpredictable songs.