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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.
The most bruising number from On The Line is “Little White Dove,” a soulful slice of yacht-funk that evokes both a feeling of peace and the specter of death. In the song, Lewis treats these ideas as one in the same. “A mother and child, emergency / behind a yellow curtain on the second floor,” Lewis sings. “All the guardian angels at the door.” Earlier in the album, Lewis tells another witty road trip story about “a narcoleptic poet from Duluth” that includes a pitstop at a graveyard. It’s called “Heads Gonna Roll.” Lewis delivers it with a lopsided grin.
Of course, the music, as always, is sublime. Ever since her turn toward Americana-style classic rock on her 2006 solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis been one of the best and most faithful preservers of wistfully damaged ’70s-style LA pop-rock, and On The Line might be her greatest work yet in that lane. Recorded mostly live in Capitol Records’ famed Hollywood studio, Lewis performed many of the songs on the same piano Carole King used for Tapestry. (Keltner, a legend who has played on everything from Full Moon Fever to Dylan’s Christian era albums, is an especially crucial contributor, providing a majestic stomp that adds an undertow of uplift to Lewis’ slower, more introspective songs.)
Much of On The Line sounds slightly frayed, like it derived from late night recording sessions where a sense of residual exhaustion suits the songs. The first single “Red Bull And Hennessy” is a party song with the desperation baked in, a bleary-eyed plea to escape loneliness if only for a few stolen moments. Later, in “Party Clown,” Lewis successfully experiences a release — “I was a girl in a black Corvette getting head in the shadows” — but Keltner’s punishing funeral-march rhythm portends overwhelming spiritual doom. At 43, Lewis has reached an age where shrugging off the accumulated hurt of life with a clever lyrical quip and an unstoppable melodic hook isn’t so easy.
While listening to On The Line this week, I thought a lot about Fleetwood Mac, whose latest tour without Lindsey Buckingham has been hugely successful. Of all the classic rock giants, no act has more traction with millennials and Generation Z than Fleetwood Mac. And that is due mostly to Stevie Nicks, the unquestioned focal point of Fleetwood Mac now that her ex-flame is out of the picture. Next week, she will be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as a solo artist by Harry Styles of One Direction, the Eddie Vedder to her Neil Young.
Likening Jenny Lewis to Fleetwood Mac isn’t new. By the time Rilo Kiley put out its final album, 2007’s Under The Blacklight, they were openly courting such comparisons. With On The Line, however, Lewis has grown into an elder stateswoman role that I expect will make her more and more venerated as the years go on.
After all, what is it about Stevie Nicks that has endeared her to so many different generations? I think it’s because she signifies a unique kind of gravitas for a rock star. She is both an artist that to whom you can connect intimately as a human being who has lived, lusted, suffered and ultimately endured, and also a larger-than-life persona. Her greatest achievement is that she makes being an adult seem like an aspirational, even glamorous ideal. We can’t all grow up with the élan of Stevie Nicks. But Jenny Lewis has.
On The Line is out 3/22 via Warner Bros Records. Get it here.
Jenny Lewis is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music.