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Girls - Broken Dreams Club

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Artist: Girls

Album: Broken Dreams Club

Label: True Panther

Review date: Nov. 15, 2010

At the end of Girls’ debut Album, Christopher Owens ended things on an optimistic note, crooning “I was feeling so sad and alone / but I found a friend in the song that I’m singing” on “Darling.” This smile-through-the-tears mentality imbued that record with an unironic honesty that held instant appeal for even the biggest skeptics of sincerity in the 21st century. Here was a guy with a wild life story who just wanted to write great pop songs because he loved Michael Jackson. Who doesn’t love Michael Jackson?

Assuming that Owens still means what he said when he sang “it’s coming straight my heart,” the numbness on Broken Dreams Club is shocking at best, ominous at worst. What happened to cause such a change in tenor? For one, the outside world’s attention. Girls went from being the property of a small group of friends in San Francisco to highly bloggable indie rock stars. Matador picked up not just the record but their entire label. Album became a critical darling. And Owens was ushered into the life of a minor pop star, complete with the extreme scrutiny of his personal life that turned out stories with click-optimized titles like “Could Girls Frontman Christopher Owens Possibly Be Telling the Truth?” The enthusiasm, the skepticism, and the expectations can certainly be unmanageable.

Or maybe the sadness just started to win out. Who knows? The only sure thing is that it has had a dramatic effect on these new songs, for the worse.

More soured than even the mood on this EP is the attitude with which the band approaches each track. Owens has always relied on tried-and-true pop conventions and sounds, from Buddy Holly to Elvis Costello. His use, however, was always dynamic, vibrant, self-aware. The references were a kitschy wink, like a little girl wearing her mother’s pearls and heels while playing house. Girls weren’t the Crickets, or the Imposters, or the Band, but isn’t it pretty to think so?

Now, they’re just going through the motions. “Thee Oh So Protective One” seems charming enough with its horn section and measured self-doubt. But there’s something off. It takes a few listens to realize the depth and emotional heft that kept Girls so ebullient is gone. The song quickly goes stale, like a prom band that can’t wait to weed out on break. What you find isn’t a wink. It’s a 1,000-yard stare firmly affixed.

It’s only when the songs are at their most crushingly blunt and bare that Girls’ original impact comes out. "Substance" lays out most clearly the problem of no hope in the face of despair: "Who wants something real / when you can have nothing?" The depression is derived from the song’s actual content and not just its half-assedness. Which is actually quite chilling when you start to consider the implications. Altered states of mind and drug use are pretty common themes for Girls, but usually in either a benign or celebratory mode. “Substance,” however, turns them into both the physical means and the figurative ends to a pretty nihilistic worldview. A simple line like “It’s a simple life” becomes cryptic: Is it a cry for help, a denial of success, or just bemused resignation? Ironically, the soberest song is also the scariest.

Theoretically, EPs are the place where a band can dump a few ideas and feelings on its way to the next full-length. That raises a lot of questions about what exactly went on here. Is this just a temporary downturn in mood and quality? Will the next record return to the same themes and temperature as Album? Or has success had much darker, potentially destructive effects on Girls? Because if things are still “coming straight from my heart,” as Owens said on “Darling,” I’m more than a little anxious about what happens next.

By Evan Hanlon

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