For a moment there, Girls was the best rock band we had. Their one-two punch of 2009’s Album and 2010’s Broken Dreams Club EP had them perfecting their surf-rock sound while simultaneously subverting it. Lead singer Christopher Owens’ yearning voice and heartbreaking lyrics sustained the integrity of every word he sang.
But was anybody ready for 2011’s Father, Son, Holy Ghost? Apart from the whirlwind of an opener “Hunny Bunny” and the bubbly “Saying I Love You,” none of the other tracks sound like anything Girls had done before. Their only similarity is their being pulled from the past—this time, the band turned to ’60s and ’70s classic rock—and molded into something new.
“Die” starts with the manic metal energy of Black Sabbath, only to transition into a bleak outro that features a flute (how can you not think of Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull?). The sunny-sounding “Magic” occupies the power-pop territory of Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. Take in the guitar interludes on “My Ma” and “Forgiveness” and be reminded of Eric Clapton and George Harrison. Several songs run over 6 minutes long, reflecting the ambitions of the era’s best rock bands. Even the album’s title evokes the kind of spiritual transcendence boomers looked for in their music.
But of course, influence can only take a band so far. That’s what makes Father, Son, Holy Ghost such an impressive accomplishment: in the wrong hands, Girls’ approach would have been a disaster, or at least a dud. On “Die,” for example, Owen’s sings:
“No, nothing’s gonna be just fine
No, we’re all going straight to hell tonight
No, nothing’s gonna be alright
And we’re all gonna die”
With anyone else behind the mic, these lyrics would fall flat and be laughable in their teenage reductiveness. With Owens, you know he fucking means it.
The most direct source of Owen’s pain on Father comes from a recent breakup. He directs this at the several women mentioned on the album. “Alex has blue eyes / Well who cares? No I don’t,” he sings on “Alex,” before admitting a minute later he does. “Hunny Bunny” evokes the impulsive, dangerous mentality of a man going 100-plus on a cliffside highway to feel something other than the pain of his loss. On “Love Like a River,” he croons about a woman that no man can hold on to (“Easy as she comes by, easy as she’s gone”).
The pinnacle of Owen’s loneliness is on the album highlight “Vomit.” The track opens with a gentle yet haunting guitar reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Yet by the end, Owens is pleading “Come into my heart / My love” over and over, aided by a gospel choir, organ and blaring guitars. What band would dare do this seemingly ridiculous thing? The key is that it’s not ridiculous. At all. Owens needs this grandiosity to express all the love he has to offer and nobody to receive it. “Vomit” remains one of my favorite rock tracks of the 2010s.
The album’s cover art features the album’s lyrics in different fonts and sizes. It’s a lot to take in, and reading the diary-like words penned by Owens can be overwhelming and even depressing. But like other great records from this decade, documenting personal trauma—from Halcyon Digest to Carrie & Lowell—Father, Son, Holy Ghost isn’t just there for the creator. We’ve all had our share of heartache, lonely nights and bouts of self-doubt. With Girls’ final album, we can rock out until the pain subsides.