On The Line (Warner)
The thing is, I knew Jenny Lewis was good, smarter than so much of the rest, and thought I was prepared. But On The Line is something else, in a bold, to-be-admired-yet-still-deeply satisfying way.
And it starts from this: we know the territory with break up and post-break up pop albums. We have been travelling through it for nigh on 50 years, know the options, and probably have our preferred route.
There are the bitter, sometimes rancorous ones: full of retribution and anger. There are the forlorn, sometimes devastated ones: peppered with questions of the “why me?” and “what could I have done differently?” type. There are the life reclaimed ones: freedom and joy emerge. And the life abandoned ones: loneliness and despair take over.
But rare, extremely rare, is an album which traffics in the confusion and disorientation of that time: which captures the inertia as much as the moves, the tidal sweeps as much as the decisions, and does not look to make sense of them when none is there.
Rare indeed is one which chronicles the period that follows not as mistakes and recovery – that staple of self-help philosophy - but as living, pure and simple: messy, inconsistent, with strange peaks and weird troughs that are not always distinguishable from each other while you’re in the middle of it.
Both lyrically and musically, Lewis doesn’t pretend. Or hide. She broke up with frequent collaborator and lover Johnathan Rice after a dozen years together, found herself on the road from her home in LA - to New York, but also anywhere that wasn’t LA – for a couple of years, and did not know what to make of it, herself, or much else. And this is the fruit of it.
Some songs are as woozy as a mid-morning drinker (the sprawled across an unmade bed Heads Gonna Roll), others lightly dance around the room like a late evening return home on a pill night (the loose limbed Red Bull & Hennessy). Some are slumped on a sun lounge willing the sun to bake this feeling away (the tender submission of Dogwood, the weary beauty of Hollywood Lawn), others are soaking up that same sun as a comfort (Rabbit Hole’s unlikely mix of Stevie Nix and Steve Miller).
Some feel like they’re reaching out but actually are still deciding who to trust (the ambivalent tempo and tone of the title track, the fragility of Taffy), some suggest flightiness but tug at you with surprising weight (Wasted Youth).
And as well as a song of brutal frankness about a very complicated mother/daughter relationship, in Little White Dove, a song like Do Si Do, would feel very familiar to anyone who has looked around after a sustained cry and realised that, while it looks like everything has gone out of focus, it is actually you whose edges has blurred.
Not surprisingly then, drink, drugs, sex, and their various methods of comforting and deflating, figure regularly through these 11 songs from a lyricist who already was one of the finer ones in this or any town. And one who can still slip in a bitingly funny line when you least expect it. Not that laughter is that much of a medicine here.
There are times when “there’s nothing we can do but screw/And booze and amphetamine,” Lewis says in Dogwood, though any attempts at resolution hit the fact that “somewhere a screw got loose along the way/And your manners have gone away”. No wonder that she believes that there will come a day “you will chase me away so that you can prove love is not enough for you”.
In Red Bull & Hennessy she describes the push and pull of need and disgust, of fuelled desire mingled with fin de affaire confusion. She’s “lying on my back/Hallellu/All will be forgiven”, wired on the titular drink and ready to blend one more – one last? – time with her erstwhile lover. But “what’s the matter with me?/I can see it in your eyes … Don’t you wanna kiss me? Don’t you even wanna try and devour the moon?”
But there’s also off-kilter lines which reflect muddled (mulled?) minds, like Hollywood Lawn’s “I’ve had it with you trippers and drama queens/If I click my ruby slippers like Don Quixote/I’m long lost like Rockefeller drifting off to sea”, and Taffy’s “Taffy spun, wild horse run, and the walls are filled with molasses/You said I looked real pretty by the frozen Mississippi”.
That said, the last part of Taffy is direct and unfettered: “Nudie pics, I do not regret it/I knew that you were gone/I did so freely/I wanted you to see me off that throne you put me on.”
I’m not going to pretend On The Line is as packed with upswinging, big hook tunes as her pop masterpieces Acid Tongue and Voyager, or for that matter Rilo Kiley’s best moment, Under The Blacklight, and the under-appreciated Jenny & Johnny record I’m Having Fun Now (a title with dark irony now of course given Jenny and Johnny’s split). And the sneaky joy of Rabbit Fur Coat is not in evidence.
This is a less buoyant record in most ways, and certainly less immediate in its appeal, though those melodies insinuate themselves soon enough. No one is going to be calling her the golden years Fleetwood Mac reincarnated again for a little while.
But the quality of the writing is superb, the truthfulness of its tone as much as its words is impressive, the playing here, especially from Benmont Tench whose keyboards subtly dominate the record, is ear-catching, her singing is the best she’s ever sounded – in variety and storytelling as well as pure sound – and I believe it. All of it.