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Jenny Lewis has never been one to telegraph her feelings. Her songwriting style, metaphorically speaking, is to invite you over, line up a row of stiff drinks, get you feeling a nice buzz, and then lay on some tough truths. She does it over and over on her great new album, On The Line, her fourth solo release in 13 years.
Take “Wasted Youth,” in which she revisits a silly song from childhood in the chorus — “I wasted my youth / on a poppy / doo doo doo doo doo doo / just for fun” — over a creamy, mid-tempo power-pop bounce supplied by a who’s-who of L.A. studio-session icons, including drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist Benmont Tench. It’s an intoxicating pop tune… until you pay attention to the verses, which touch on mortality — “Stop your crying, our daddy’s gone / do you remember when he used to sing us that little song?” — with the matter-of-fact inevitably of a morning after hangover. As often happens in life, the hangover is what lingers in Jenny Lewis songs.
A product of the ’00s boom in thoughtful, classicist indie singer-songwriters, Lewis hasn’t always gotten the sort of “genius” shine regularly given to contemporaries such as Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens, or her one-time collaborator, the disgraced Ryan Adams. (She’s also more influential than she gets credit for — I refuse to believe that Kacey Musgraves wasn’t studying Jenny Lewis records when she made Golden Hour.) Sexism, of course, has something to do with this discrepancy. But I suspect it’s also related to Lewis’ inclination to disarm the listener before — gently, deftly, even sweetly — gutting them. Ever since Take Offs And Landings, her 2001 debut with her previous band, Rilo Kiley, Lewis has written openly about her desires and hangups with a candor that’s leavened with a charming wit and a deceptively light musical touch.
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine a man singing “Portions For Foxes,” one of Lewis’ signature numbers, from Rilo Kiley’s 2004 album More Adventurous. How much more melodramatic and “artfully” miserable does the chorus — “And it’s bad news / Baby, I’m bad news” — become? Instead, the song is quintessentially Jenny Lewis: Tender but resilient, fearlessly open but also untouchable. Or how about “Late Bloomer,” the casually epic centerpiece of 2014’s excellent (and sort of underappreciated) The Voyager, a road trip narrative set to a melody that’s reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”? I love Conor Oberst, but his Dylan homages inevitably come off as heavy-handed. “Late Bloomer,” meanwhile, is a serrated edge wrapped in a velvet glove.
Even when Jenny Lewis writes about failed relationships, failed families, or failures of personal resolve, you always get the sense that she’s strong enough to eventually make it through. What’s different about On The Line is that, as the title suggests, she reveals more of the scars that she’s endured in the process. During the press cycle, Lewis has openly discussed the twin traumas that inspired the album — the end of her long-time relationship with partner and fellow singer-songwriter Jonathan Rice, and the death of her troubled mother, whose issues with mental illness and drug addiction have cast a long shadow over Lewis’ songs over the years.