Is the former Rilo Kiley singer’s fourth solo album too manicured for its own gain?
Artist: Jenny Lewis
Album: On The Line
Label: Warner Bros.
★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars)
The first thing longtime fans will notice is the vocal affect. At 43, Jenny Lewis has earned the right to do whatever she wants, including singing in a pinched Vegas-soul-Stevie-and-I-don’t-mean-Wonder rasp.
Suspicions are confirmed by the next track, the deeply “Leather and Lace”-besotted “Wasted Youth.” But while Lewis is unquestionably the better lyricist — brace yourself for “Took a little trip up North / In a borrowed convertible red Porsche / With a narcoleptic poet from Duluth / And we disagreed about everything / From Elliott Smith to Grenadine / He fell asleep and I put up the roof” — “Leather and Lace” is kind of lapping her on the melody front in 2019.
Between 1999 and 2007, Jenny Lewis co-authored five records, four of them near-perfect or better: long out-of-print juvenile sex diary Initial Friend, depressive’s-guide-to-Earth The Execution of All Things, commanding agency-coming-out-party More Adventurous, and the grizzled 31-year-old’s sex diary Under the Blacklight. They’re all by Rilo Kiley, her beloved but criminally critically-ignored former unit with guitarist-visionary, ex, and possible asshole Blake Sennett, and so one more of the two near-perfect records she’s released in its wake: 2013’s RKives, a rarities buffet that can hang with the Velvet Underground’s VU. The other is 2014’s The Voyager by Jenny Lewis, a peak of not just her solo career but the Wilson Phillips-meets-Tom Petty aesthetic tried on by Taylor Swift, Haim, and Tegan and Sara, to name just the ones worth remembering. The beloved, gospel-tinged Rabbit Fur Coat from 2006 and garage-soul dumpster dive Acid Tongue in 2008 also had moments as great as the seven above-named, especially the latter’s title track, which her band would put down their instruments and crowd around one mic for onstage, as Lewis delivered a gripping addict’s-daughter’s lament: “Nobody helps a liar.” On the Line, however, does not.
Jenny Lewis “On The Line” Internet special
So the second thing longtime fans will notice about her first solo jaunt in a half-decade is the penance. In a recent Pitchfork profile, Lewis brought up how the widely mocked Blacklight incurred a horrifying old Idolator piece graphing the decline of her music and the shortening of her skirts in tandem. On the Line’s 8.0 isn’t just the highest rating the site’s given her, it’s the first time they’ve treated her as the major artist she is. It’s also the first thing she’s released since the site’s first female editor-in-chief. Blacklight and Adventurous, two of the best albums of the 2000s by any group of humans, were waved off with a 5 and change, at a very different time.
But this new era partly owes Lewis for itself; Blacklight introduced indie-rock to Fleetwood Mac legitimately before it was cool, not to mention some gutsy Dusty Springfield and Gloria Estefan pastiches. Only Burial (or, if you don’t mind the singing, Junior Boys) can make the claim to indie R&B at the time, and by the time the xx, How to Dress Well, and that chronic masturbator Bon Iver clinched it, people were ready. They’re still catching up to Rilo Kiley’s Too $hort remix, though.
If the innovator wants to dive full into her Stevie Nicks inflection and big, swampy L.A. piano ballads like “Dogwood” in 2019, she sure can. Towards the end we even get a couple big hooks worthy of an A-lister’s B+ tier in the pounding title track (with its familiar internal rhyming about “before you let her / Under your sweater”) and the Traveling Wilburys-worthy throwaway “Rabbit Hole,” and by then, the likes of “Red Bull & Hennessey” and “Heads Gonna Roll” sound a lot better, too. But anyone trying to claim this pleasantly uniform assembly line with the likes of Ringo, Beck, Don Was, Jim Keltner and disgraced Voyager producer Ryan Adams at its disposal is a living legend’s best work to date is going to need a late pass.
VIDEO: Jenny Lewis – Heads Gonna Roll