When we last met up with Girls on the Broken Dreams Club EP, the band included a letter with release that described the record as a “letter of intent, a roadmap to the future.” In listening to the mini-album, there was much to be excited about, as the group flexed their chops melodically (“The Oh So Protective One”), lyrically (“Substance”), and sonically (“Carolina”). In short, it was a triumph of a release and served its purpose to excite fans and critics alike about the future.
With that in mind, as well as Girls’ impressive self-titled debut, it is easy to understand any initial disappointment with Father, Son, Holy Ghost, the band’s sophomore full-length. If Broken Dreams Club represented a road map, Father, Son, Holy Ghost depicts a set of bad directions, where the duo has abandoned their proven guide and gone on so many paths that they appear lost, leaving the listener feeling the same way. If anything was a roadmap for the direction of Girls, it would be opener “Honey Bunny,” which manages to cover the ground of an appropriated version of The Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” before segwaying into a personal lament about lead-singer Christopher Owens’ mother, and back again to the surf-pop without flinching. It’s noble in its intent, but, ultimately, jarring in its execution.
In fact, it is much easier to admire Father, Son, Holy Ghost than it is to dismiss it. There is not a poor song in the collection, with some tracks soaring higher than others. First single “Vomit” will remain high in many critics’ esteem come the end of the year, capturing the loneliness and desperation of Owens’ pursuit of love and transforming the hunt into a larger-than-life conclusion, complete with a dramatically beautiful melody juke and “Great Gig In The Sky” soul singers. “Forgiveness” is painfully intimate, with Owens proclaiming that “nothing is going to get any better, if you are drowning in your fear, if you’ve got nothing but sorrow in your soul.” But, the snail-pace boiler gets every detail right, from the crunchy effects on the acoustic guitar to the most redemptive guitar solo recorded in recent memory. The song is called “Forgiveness,” and it feels like it. And then there is “Alex,” which disguises affecting lyrics that balance the idea of our immediate surroundings with a greater world view by tying them up in an up-tempo romp that sounds like it should be as easy to let go of as it is to enjoy. Well, expert production and sharp-as-a-nail lyrics elevate it from filler to accomplished songwriting.
In fact, if there are two things you can’t knock Girls for, it is production and lyrics. Father, Son, Holy Ghost showcases Chet “JR” White as the studio wizard that he has gained a reputation as. From the guitar tones of “Die” to the subtle orchestration and building snares at the conclusion of “Just A Song,” there is a fine balance between taste and execution, with the band never biting off more than they can chew and providing smart decisions throughout. Owens’ words, on the other hand, don’t sound as fine tuned as the backing music, but they are always honest, immediate, interesting, and, at times, emotionally devastating. Owens has something to say when he writes a song, and that is more than can be said about a lot of lyricists.
And as impressive as so many aspects of Father, Son, Holy Ghost are, the record never comes together as a unit. As nice as the songs sound on their own, the shifts between the songs are often too dramatic (see: the move between “Die” and “Saying I Love You”), seeming like they belong on separate albums by the same band, rather than unwillingly forced together on this one.
Things are complicated by the fact that many of the songs here are quite clearly re-appropriations of other well known songs. Sure, “Saying I Love You” kind of reminds me of “More Than Words” by Extreme, but that probably says more about me than the song. But others, such as the aforementioned “Fun Fun Fun” bite on “Honey Boney,” or the fact that “Die” sounds exactly like the second-half of Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia,” are too close for comfort and call into question the originality of the musicianship. Sure, there can be arguments about how everything is derivative of something, but there are also lawsuits pretty regularly involving Coldplay for instances in this same ballpark. Which side of the fence Father, Son, Holy Ghost falls on is going to vary from listener to listener, but the fact that it is even in the discussion and that listening to the album can seem like a game of Name That Tune is distracting and hurts the album as a whole.
Would the flaws of Father, Son, Holy Ghost be easy to remedy, and is there a great album hiding inside? Probably not. Remember, Girls are only on their second full-length album and certain missteps should be expected. What we do know is that an album that misses the mark for Girls is far better than the majority of music we come across on a daily basis, and that Father, Son, Holy Ghost is, above all, a fascinating listen. It is continually ambitious from song to song, never leaving an idea to go unexplored. But, Father, Son, Holy Ghost seems like a step backward from their previous work, where their direction was more clear and listener didn’t have to try too hard to excuse the records’ faults.