Girls are obsessed with downplaying the complexity of their art, enforcing simplicity on their music by labelling it with titles like ‘Album’ (their 2009 debut), or Just A Song (a stand-out track on ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’ ). Introspective, lonely late-night ballads are hidden behind personal names like Jamie Marie and Alex, anchoring their significance to a single person – this cast of silhouettes, the faceless people who supposedly orchestrate the avalanche of emotion that tumbles through ‘Father…’, claim to solidify and simplify the album’s intent, locating it all in the familiarity of a particular relationship. There is much more than this, though, that Christopher Owens’s aching voice has to say – determined though he and band-mate Chet ‘JR’ White are to slot their songs into narrow spaces, their organ-infused and breathtakingly honest sounds are escaping through the cracks. Although ‘Album’ could claim to be inherently stuck in the San Francisco duo’s complicated backstory, ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’ is something huge, something elaborate, and it’s bursting with stories to tell.
“If we could have recorded with session musicians and a studio, I think it would have been like ‘Pet Sounds’,” Owens told The Guardian in an interview about ‘Album’ in 2009. What ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’ achieves is something that reeks of this idea, combining freedom to innovate and reverence of the past, proving that Girls are taking the steps forward from their debut that they always intended. Although still maintaining the rough-cut Girls charm, the record shows a fleshier approach to recording, stealing sounds from everywhere imaginable; Die kicks up the dust that has settled on old rock records, while Just A Song draws together several musical styles, feeding the listener with snippets, rather than ever allowing them to sink into the familiar. Everything at once, and no one thing, Father keeps attention-leaping sounds simmering together over the bubbling heat of surf-pop influences, with casual guitars and salty vocals. It seems at several points that this should all be too much – songs build up and break down unpredictably, swirling around in the steamy confusion of late-night jams, rather than settling into a recognisable groove. This, though, is where the jigsaw puzzle of familiar musical motifs reaches out its hand, methodical amongst the madness, providing fragments of “oh, yes, okay” in a maelstrom of “where is this going?”.
Above the sublime gospel backing vocals, the unravelling flute solos and the bluesy beats, it is Christopher Owens who transcends each song on ‘Father, Son, Holy Ghost’, transforming each elaborate composition into an intimate, smokey conversation. There may be a swarm of ideas at play, but at the heart of them all is Owens’s desperation for simplicity, his search for an anchor. Ageless, sexless, proverb-esque lines such as “nothing’s gonna get any better/ if you don’t have a little hope”, which opens the 8-minute wander through twilight emotion that is Forgiveness, encapsulate the awkward, aching mentality at the heart of the album; the person who just wants love and happiness, and wants finding it to be simple. Owens is both irrepressibly himself, with that catch-in-your-throat voice, full of his own personal wallowing, and also unavoidably an everyman, or everywoman, a faceless expression of what a burden it is to have a soul.
It is in this sense that Father, Son, Holy Ghost is not the straightforward celebration of music that Girls make it out to be. By pouring everything that speaks plainly to them into an album, the pair have created something which speaks with innumerable voices. This is an album that, although anchored in musical history, spreads its feelers out to grasp on to the present moment, and the present mood – just as a late-night song-writing experiment might be Just A Song, but might float out of the bedroom window, catch the attention of someone else, and become the soundtrack of another night entirely.