In Nitsuh Abebe’s essay “Why We Fight: A Brief History of Knowingness and Irony,” he reflects on the prevalent narrative in cultural criticism surrounding the rise of irony in the 20th century. By virtue of being a narrative, it is obviously and inherently incomplete, its details and events hand-picked to form neat timelines and causal relationships. But it’s still a useful roadmap to navigating this kind of cultural phenomenon, if only because, inaccuracies or shortcomings irrelevant, it illustrates how cultural insincerity has historically been talked about and conceptualized. Abebe writes:
Americans born from the late 50s to mid-70s grew up in a world where a lot of old certainties about society, work, family, and life had been eroded — by big social changes in the 60s, by economic decline, by lots of things. And yet these people were still raised on a culture full of old “certainties” that suddenly looked really, really false and corny. Elvis-impersonator corny, After-School Special corny. So they developed a kind of irony and skepticism, floating around, smirking but rarely committing to anything. Some of them were good enough at it that, by the late 80s, it’d become an actual cultural aesthetic, a sort of slacker knowingness that could get as mainstream as, say, “The Simpsons.”
Those were Gen Xers, mostly. But even as people slightly younger than them grew up, through the 90s, on a steady diet of that attitude, some folks started to notice a kind of futility in the whole thing, a defensiveness, an emptiness, an inability to embrace anything — at which point you could suddenly read thousands of words of David Foster Wallace on how damaging it might be, how much we needed to tap back into the kinds of “basic human verities” that actually helped us lead meaningful lives. Some people even started predicting the rise of some “New Sincerity.”
Singer-songwriter Christopher Owens fits somewhere (very loosely) within this New Sincerity counter-push, a movement which has included figures ranging from Daniel Johnston or Conor Oberst to author Tao Lin. Owens may not be (self-)consciously operating within the movement’s connotations or its tumultuous history, and it might therefore be inaccurate to see his sincerity as a countercultural “push-back” against ironic knowingness (though a sole genre tag of “alternative” on his Bandcamp possibly reflects a self-positioning against a snarky mainstream). But the brand of expression that he practices — emphasizing sincerity and emotional vulnerability even at the cost of banality — is maybe one of the movement’s more genuine and heartfelt incarnations. Owens has been through the ringer (he was raised in a cult, his mother was forced to prostitute herself, and he lost his brother to a curable disease), and seems legitimately lost within, or at least, saddened by, traditional notions of “the cool” and its frequent equivalence with cynical knowingness. That sentiment finds him singing encouraging lines on Chrissybaby Forever like, “Come on boy / I know you have big dreams / I know that things go bad / But it’s gonna be okay”; elsewhere he encourages listeners to “sing their songs” straight from their heart (“Music of My Heart”).
If one buys into the kind of cultural synopsis posited by Abebe, that the origin of ironic cynicism is the collapse of sacred systems or “basic human verities” which create meaning in our lives, then one must also grapple with the implication that such a narrative holds: that any meaningful assault on the irony issue must consist of negotiating, reconciling, or rebuilding within the void of that collapse. There are two approaches, then, that a listener can choose to take when interacting with Owen’s music and philosophy of sincerity. Either his willingness to engage, and engage meaningfully (in stark contrast with the quasi-nihilism of the underground music scene), is a way of rebuilding in itself: Owens plays the role of go-getter, breaking his back trying to create a worthwhile framework for living, based in love, acceptance, and optimism, while the larger indie scene stands in the corner, sneering at his efforts with its hands on its hips. Or, alternatively, it also seems fair to argue that Owens’ approach isn’t a genuine rebuilding but a naive response to the cultural collapse. By this line of thinking, when at the end of “Another Loser Fuckup,” Owens sings “Don’t be afraid to live / Don’t be afraid to die / Don’t be afraid to fail / Don’t be afraid to try,” it isn’t too unlike, say, encouraging a bungee jumper to still take the leap despite his cord fraying (or worse, severing completely). One might argue that the problem of void and vacuum, the lack of a proper safety harness, still exists — it’s just being ignored. Either way though, the very fact that Chrissybaby and Owens’ larger musical output raises these sort of questions in the first place, while challenging the dominant equivalence between cynicism and sophistication, lends him weighty cultural value.
Owens’ aesthetic kinship to the 60s and 70s (decades which witnessed, and reacted to, the aforementioned spiritual crisis ) has been much noted, but his relationship to the era descends beneath the surface; his music advocates for a certain model of free love — or at least, of courageous, extroverted, abundant love — as well as criticizing violence and conflict. While the latter trait hasn’t been as played up in Owens’ work as the former, it’s shown up before in songs like 2010’s “Broken Dreams Club.” On that record, it was “Still so many people poor / Can’t get my head around these wars”; here it’s Owens pondering why “we’re killing each other” in a “broken world” (“Another Loser Fuck Up”).
If all this sounds a little sappy, it can be. There’s a precarious divider line between sincere and cornball, a line which Owens walks on both sides of in Chrissybaby. The songwriter is at his best when he’s confessionally, genuinely, self-deprecating, opening up about his own shortcomings or admitting to being desperately needy for attention (Father, Son’s “Vomit”; Chrissybaby’s “Selfish Feelings”). He’s at his worst, however, when he proselytizes. Owens has stated in interviews that the new records reflect his outlook on life, but rather than present it subtly, integrating it into the mesh of his songs (as Miguel
Gallego, for example, did in this year’s standout Dicktations record), he has a tendency to push too strongly; the result is couplets which can come off like excerpts from a self-help book or motivational speech. And to defend this tendency solely on the basis of sincerity’s merits seems like forcing a false choice: sincerity can be, and often is, shopworn and trite; but simply because it’s so difficult to make universal verities sophisticated and fresh doesn’t seem like adequate justification for failure.
(One element of this sappy enthusiasm that does frequently work is Owen’s eager, unabashed embracing of the music he loves, often by offering his own takes on (or straight rips of) famous melodies. It’s a welcoming break from the fetishization of originality (and, congruently, authenticity) in contemporary indie music, an attitude so far removed from the frequent inclusion of standards and traditionals in early and mid-twentieth century records. On Father, Son, Holy Ghost it was “Die” ’s “Deep Purple” reference; here it’s “I Love You Like I Do” (“Canon in D”) and “Heroine” (“Tide Is High”). The Pachelbel-aping however, like his occasional lyrical proselytization, borders on pushing things too far — it might be a sort of counter-counter-cultural move to appropriate something so distinctly unhip and simultaneously beloved, but it’s a melody so tired that it seems impossible to re-energize, regardless of context; when the organ line fades out at the four-minute mark in favor of an intimate and infectious female vocal, there’s a sense of relief at hearing something new. One begins to suspect, or at least feels tempted to conjecture that, Owens, having been deprived of culture during his Children-of-God adolescence is in the process of joyfully discovering it for the first time. Sometimes, this can lead to an enjoyable re-discovering on the part of the listener; other times it simply inspires a feeling of, “been there, done that.”)
Lyrical and cultural commentary aside, Chrissybaby Forever pairs beautiful, adroitly crafted vocal melodies with elegantly-economical instrumentals, managing to create a number of exceptionally poignant cuts. And this shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise. Despite unenthusiastic critical and commercial reception, Owens’ solo output has displayed moments of lucid brilliance. 2014’s A New Testament was often uneven, with its fair share of weak tracks, but when Owens was turned on, he shone brightly: “Nothing More Than Everything To Me,” “Never Wanna See That Look Again,” and “It Comes Back To You” were all exceptional. A “Best Of” compilation from his solo career, despite being able to pull from only three records at this point (not counting his acoustic alternate version of Lysandre), would certainly hold its own with any of the Girls releases, and with the best records of the 2010s to date. One wonders, given Owens’ demonstrated ability as a songwriter and the recent inconsistency of his solo output, whether a crucial part of (Girls’ producer) J.R. White’s contribution to the group was his curatorial ability. Afer all, post-Girls White has shown himself incredibly capable in selecting both the songwriters and songs that he works with (recent credits include Cass McCombs and Tobias Jesso Jr.). With White missing, Owens’ solo LPs have often felt as if they need a discerning eye to pick out the filler and fluff from stand-out material.
On Chrissybaby, JJ Wiesler (Broken Dreams Club EP, Jonathan Richman) is behind the decks, and there seems to be more consistently memorable tracks on the record than were on Lysandre or New Testament — though this may also have come as a result of Owens’ maturation as a musician and artist. The four-song medley in the latter third of the record, culminating in “I Love You Like I Do,” is an especially strong segment; fellow Bay-Area-based The She’s lend vocals here and throughout the record. “Another Loser Fuckup” channels “Lust for Life,” Owens’ largest hit to-date, in a way that seems cheekily, endearingly self-aware. And Blondie-referencing “Heroine” is gorgeously sung and produced, another of the album’s standouts (“before long you can’t live without it” Owens sings, playing off the title’s obvious homophone and referencing his own history of opiate addiction). Owens has never really been one for distortion, atonality, or ugliness, always prioritizing beauty in his art (a characteristic also central to the New Sincerity movement; radio host Jesse Thorn — purportedly — writes that the movement privileges, cathects, and reevaluates “previously ‘suspect’ topics, such as beauty and aspects of the emotional life.”
It’s also worth noting that Owens’ voice is in the best shape it’s ever been (with the possible exception of mid-album track “What About Love,” which finds him struggling to hit sevenths and eighths in the lead melody line). Owens’ vocal development has been a large part of his musical evolution — Album found him frequently nasally pantomiming, in a Blue Valentine-esque attempt to sidestep insecurities or vulnerability; ever since, Owens has grown more confident and more practiced as a vocalist, and it shows on his recent releases.
Ultimately, Chrissybaby Forever is a record with an incredibly ambitious mission statement: to succeed within a counter-cultural indie art scene by challenging all of its assumptions about art — the importance of originality and newness, the value of cynicism and knowingness. It fails frequently, but it succeeds frequently as well, and its cultural value is only diminished in part by these failures. Perhaps its influence will be measured best not by its immediate contemporary reactions but by the long-term success of the philosophy and outlook that ground it.
Christopher Owens’ third solo effort, Chrissybaby Forever, was released May 27 on Turnstile Records. It can be streamed and downloaded at his Bandcamp.
 By the mid 70s, of course, the flower revolution of the previous decade had ended, with all its attempted genuineness seen as a joke, a failure, or both; by 1979, Patti Smith would write in her Creem review of Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer: “Today the drama of [Morrison’s] intensity seems dated… in its passion and innocence.”