Joy’All (Blue Note)
THE CURSE OF the too-many-good-things-to-be-fully-appreciated is not the worst thing that can happen to someone – at least you’re not being ignored they might be thinking: they like me enough and that’s nothing to be sneezed at – but it does mean stuff, good stuff, even great stuff, can slide by, as “extras”. Or worse, as if anyone could have done it.
If Jenny Lewis wasn’t so funny and biting, more people would be picking apart the life-wrought wisdom of her best lines and offering at least respect, if not awe at how she mingles unflinching self-awareness and a forgiving eye, empathetic understanding and an acid tongue. If Jenny Lewis wasn’t so capable at laying a delicious melody over breezy rhythms that sound like the easiest route to pop pleasure, more people would be picking apart the way her songs take familiar chords and sounds and pull you in, build your care and subtly drive you to a deep valley of satisfaction.
And it will probably happen again with Joy’All, though the flashing signs of brilliance are no less evident. Executive summary? This is such a fine fine pop record, with a message (oh yes!), and it will improve your life by a measurable 37.4 per cent. Minimum.
In practical terms, Joy'All was made while Lewis lived between her homes in LA (where she grew up, charted its middle-belly and came to embody in some ways) and Nashville (where she’s moved in, discovered its soft belly, and plugged into the depth of its creative community), so it’s almost bi-coastal you might say. How 1970s!
Mind you, given her musical style has long favoured a classic coke blend of west coast harmonising flares and cruising country with pop flair – do feel free to go back to Rabbit Fur Coat, her 2005 solo debut with Americana duo, The Watson Twins, and work your way back to here – that doesn’t radically change what we hear.
Except for the cascading clichés of a chugging Love Feel, which gleefully namechecks so many Music Row tropes it might yet be stolen unironically by Keith Urban (except maybe the one about “PCP and mary jane”) – one of several songs here which came out of a set-topic songwriting camp run by fellow genre-crossing Angeleno, Beck – the differences are at the margins, in the emphases at times.
So you might see that in the slanted sunshine of Cherry Baby, the bar piano in Love Feel, and the Paul Simon funky shuffle of the title track. Or it could be the way Balcony glistens like a Laura Nyro spin on girl groups and Puppy And A Truck takes you for a hayride, except the pedal steel is in the back seat of an old, low-spring convertible. Maybe it will be in the extra space of the quite beautiful Essence Of Life, which has the pearly dewdrops of a late-night country torch song that will be sung by Rumer in a city club, or how the slow soul Giddy Up likely touches on West Coast jazz but with less obvious “cool”.
And for those of us who love a good spoken intro or middle section, Chain Of Tears gives that in a full mix of ‘60s teen drama: the sad-eyed backing vocals! The faintly garage-y organ! The echoing drums! The harp glissando!
Like Lewis says in a laughing off-mic caught at the end of Love Feel, “that’s fun”.
In existential terms, this album was written in part while Covid ran rampant and Lewis lay dormant, and then as she took stock of what that fallow period brought in the way of darkness, at first, and then clarity. The realisation? The pursuit of happiness may not be fruitful or helpful to body or mind, but finding joy along the way doesn’t suck as a way to live.
Given that, the initial impression may be that this has produced a kinder, calmer Lewis, one who reckons shit happens but you pluck the daisies that grow from it. And that isn’t without some basis.
Puppy And A Truck encapsulates one strand of her advice: basically, get one of each and nothing can truly look hopeless. “Like a shot of good luck/I got a puppy and a truck/If you feel like giving up/Shut up/Get a puppy and a truck”. Another of the early singles, Psychos, looks almost benevolently on dating anew in Nashville, “There are no hard feelings/How can I help you? …I’m not a psycho/I’m just trying to get laid”. And Giddy Up says, perhaps to one of those Nashville dates, “Take a chance/On a little romance/We’re both adults”, and means it.
But if you think that’s some Lewis makeover to a new age-y wishful dreamer, she’s really too smart for that kind of simplicity. Even in those three songs there are drops of wry humour (“Turn down the treble/Drop the bass/Respect to your guru/Namaste”), hard truth (“My 40s are kicking my ass/And handing them to me in a margarita glass/I was infatuated with an older man/And then I dated a psychopath/So I’m 44 in 2020 and thank god I saved up some money”) and challenging sadness (“When I’m all by myself/I just hurt myself/Baby can you feel that?”).
And this is without the confronting circumstances of Balcony which in a little folk/rock glide, like a gentle Love or Lisa Miller walking down Sunset, deals with a friend’s death by suicide during lockdown, and wonders how close she or we might have come to the idea (“Sort of like a test/Who can stand themselves the best/From a balcony/We leapt”).
Or of the title track, which opens with her being abused as a teenager (“It informed me/It almost destroyed me, yeah”) offers straightforward advice to someone now at that same age (“Keep your head down mama/Find your groove/Lead with your heart … please be smart”) and ends with sage wisdom (“The burden of proof isn’t on you”).
On the other hand, where once Lewis might have stuck the knife further in, piling sharp takedown on comic skewering, she pauses and looks around, the detail containing multitudes – his and hers.
In the shimmering acoustic ballad Apples And Oranges, an ex and his younger replacement (“He rides a half-pipe/Sold his motorbike/For Australian boots”) are compared and contrasted (“He don’t know the things about me/That endure despite/He’s hot and he’s cool/He just isn’t you”, but on the other hand, “He …gives a long stare/When I ask what gives?/Then he sends me flowers/And the fucking is outta sight”), both with fails, both with reasons to hold on to. At least for a moment or two.
Funny. Smart. Memorable.
So another record of mid-tempo to slightly frisky pop songs with divine melody following sublime melody, and lines you’ll be quoting for a good long while, hoping everyone thinks they are yours? Yeah, it’s that. And the rest.
O COME JENNY LEWIS – JOYFUL, NOT TRIUMPHANT. Read Jenny Lewis talk about the rocky path to Joy Y’all.
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