On “Love Is In the Ear of the Listener,” Christoper Owens sings, “What if I’m just a bad songwriter/ And everything I say has been said before?/ Well, everything to say has been said before/And that’s not what makes or breaks a song.” What comes to mind is John Cage, who wrote: “Do not create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.” Owens’ failure is that he’s trying to do both in the song: jam the analysis of creative anxiety into a shrugged irreverence, all tied up in the language of every cliché related to the subject possible. “Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder” really does exactly what a drained cliché does: nothing. Cliché metaphors form in a social attempt at economy of language, relative emotional relations of the abstract, but what Owens presents here is hardly an abstract. Rather, it’s “you might not like this (or worse ‘get this’), but who cares because beauty/beholder phrase.” Granted, the song isn’t intended to be about Owens in that particular moment, but rather Owens in performance anxiety with his former band Girls. For all intents and purposes, it’s very easy to get, it really is, and the idea seems so incredibly flat and self-absorbed that any extrapolated understanding or meaning outside of the song is depleted, destroyed, finished. The idea is forcing itself to be a lot smarter than it really is, making the assertion worse than the idea just being dumb for dumb’s sake.
Lysandre is full of problems/problematic things, and most of it rests on one of the album’s biggest problems: the insistent, ever-present “me.” Cult of personality takes a lot of hard work, time, and flat-out fucking mysticism to build, and this idea that Owens presses onto the listener is that we should really, really care about him (“And if your heart is broken/ You will find fellowship with me/ And if your ears are open/ You will hear honestly from me.”). So much of Owens takes up the space on Lysandre that it’s easy to forget that it’s supposed to be about someone else. There are plenty of blogs/interviews/etc. that can give a listener everything they need to know about Owens’ life and career, how “relatable” he is (“full of sadness and pointing towards resolution,” “a fresh start for a writer with a fine ear for the way happiness and heartbreak intertwine,” “Owens’ command of understated devastation remains unparalleled”) over stressing the idea that this is really Important, that he is Important, that his problems are Important.
But his problems bear neither the physical or emotional weight that real, actual anxiety can place on both the human body and psyche. It’s pretty weak, considering that an easy trip to the Great Moments of Songwriting History Museum can show you how well a person can insert their actual presence and make the emotional weight not about themselves, but about something bigger than the self. An example: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a personal letter to a friend, signed off with his own name (“Sincerely, L. Cohen”), asks the question to his friend, “Did you ever go clear?” and nobody needs to know a single damned thing about Cohen to understand the close, devastating concern for a friend that this song possesses. Granted, this song contains plenty of abstraction and inventiveness that should be par for the “good” songwriting course (none of which Owens possesses, or even cares to attempt). Even Dylan in his uncomfortably personal “Wedding Song” still rouses up the line, “I love you more than blood.” If this problem of un-inventiveness is what Owens rests on when he speaks out the “everything has been said before” cliché, it hardly makes up for the fact that even this idea isn’t approached creatively. Everything about Lysandre is so reliant on everything being easy that the album ends up feeling easy too. Not in a form of effortlessness or sprezzatura, but of actual not trying, and defending every such act with a depleted metaphor.
Autobiography in songwriting is capable of a kind of vulnerability that can push the boundaries of comfort, both in terms of craft and listening experience. But Owens’ autobiography in Lysandre is hardly that kind of vulnerability. It pushes towards neither discomfort nor understanding, but rather repeatedly asserts how much you need to care about his feelings. Even the non-lyrical content, from the generic Renaissance faire filler to the Saxo-jizz-aphone in “New York City” and “Riviera Rock” feel canned from the aisle of the Saturday Night Live theme song store. Even “New York City” makes the city feel like the most boring place on earth. Every keyboard and slide embellishment seems completely contrived in the face of the history of the instruments. The repeated “Lysandre’s Theme” that occurs in every song becomes downright comical by the Jimmy Buffet jam-out “Riviera Rock.” Even the images of falling in love are boring: “Kissin’-and-a-huggin’ is the air that I breathe,” “I would love to kiss you in the moonlight/ Slowly dancing under starlight,” “I wanna do yesterday when you took me to your mother’s house/ And we watched television on the couch/ And then bought a pack of cigarettes.” Really? Really? This could only be interesting if he had impeccable vocal phrasing or delivery, which that too is incredibly dull. Is this where “happiness and heartbreak intertwine,” where “understated devastation remains unparalleled?” Am I at McDonald’s? Does everyone get a reward at the end of the album for being such a good audience?
What makes this whole affair upsetting is that there are a wealth of good songwriters out there, and not just in the modernist sense of inventiveness, but who work with postmodern notions of language’s finiteness in incredibly interesting and creative ways. Creative theft takes a large amount of knowledge and timing; it’s not just as easy as the act itself (looking at you, intro of “Part Of Me”). Owens may have an interesting biography, but that doesn’t immediately result in interesting songs. Songwriting is much more intricate and involving than that, even in its most lowbrow form, and I don’t understand where “promise” gets on and “incapable” gets off. Command of craft, no matter how ramshackle or unconventional, is still important, even in the face of a post-irony “maybe he does actually think this Renaissance shit is cool” view. Easy reliance is not okay; we are smarter than that, at least I hope.