Christopher Owens, whether consciously or not, seems to be distancing himself from his short-lived band, Girls. Where the depressingly small discography of that band was inventive and charismatic, Owens’ solo debut, Lysandre, was a stick in the mud, a ballad-heavy roots record that failed to be as dynamic or compelling as anything his previous band released. For all of Owens’ more introspective songwriting tendencies, records like Girls’ debut, Album, benefited from bombast. That record’s definitive and representative cut, “Hellhole Ratrace,” was sprawling and adventurous, anchored by a memorable melody. On his sophomore solo LP, Owens seems to have completely left behind that sense of adventure and excitement.
Despite the brief runtimes of its tracks, and the inclusion of many Girls collaborators, A New Testament is a slog. The album consists entirely of rudimentary alt-country ditties, all paint-by-numbers looks at love and longing where steel guitars weep in the background. There’s “It Comes Back To You,” a languid cut that mines that most cliché songwriting trope: If you love something, let it go. As with just about everything Owens has a hand in, the production and arrangement is spot-on. The mid-song electric guitar solo is wonderfully cathartic, and the organ uplifting, but it’s all in service of rote storytelling. In fact, most of A New Testament is perfectly complacent, satisfied to trot out tepid sounds and halfhearted metaphors. “Nobody’s Business” muses on the solitary nature of love, but its sing-song melody represents an incongruence between form and content. Similarly, songs such as “Oh My Love” and “A Heart Akin The Wind” wallow in lovelorn sadness, presenting more of the lukewarm ballads that bogged down Lysandre. Such lethargic tracks contribute to the feeling that A New Testament is completely serviceable while also being wholly uninteresting.
If there’s a single bright spot, other than the stellar sonic flourishes that adorn just about every track here, it’s “Key To My Heart.” The song starts off as another banal ode to love until Owens turns the song on its head. Instead of musing on the power of love and the idea of soul mates, “Key To My Heart” morphs into a beautiful exploration of possessiveness and insecurity. When Owens proclaims that his lover can always come back because they have a key to his heart, it isn’t promising; it reeks of vulnerability and insecurity. It’s a moment of sly songwriting subversion on a lifeless record, a moment of complexity on an otherwise simplistic, dull record. For all its talk of hearts and affection, A New Testament barely has a pulse.