I am a musician, which by and large means that I don’t often pay for music (because I don’t have much money). But I will purchase Jenny Lewis’ new record, The Voyager. Here’s why.
A 14-year-old has perhaps the perfect disposition to really love the music of Lewis’ first prominent band, Rilo Kiley. In the heyday of emo, a genre that some argue deserves the decade-after retrospective it is currently enjoying, Rilo Kiley didn’t seem particularly special. It was easy to hear then that their songs dripped with vulnerability, drama, and pathos, but only in hindsight have they started to stand out from the pack for their tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and relatively cool interpretation of the emo ethos. I don’t think any of that was on my mind when I was a 14-year-old devotee of the band. Mostly I was attracted to their poppy chord changes, blazing guitar arrangements, and beautiful lead singer.
By the time Lewis broke away to start her solo career, I was 18 and somehow more focused on songwriting then romance (but to be fair, the margin was pretty thin). I took Rabbit Fur Coat, her debut solo record, very seriously. Later I realized I’d taken it too seriously. It’s certainly not a bad record, but it’s also not very remarkable. Rabbit, much like the Rilo Kiley album that would be released the following year, suffered from having been produced in two separate chunks by two different producers. Lewis’ compositional and physical voices were not enough to stitch the two halves together in a meaningful way, and in time it felt like there was little return on the emotional investment I’d made in the record.
So when my then-girlfriend burned me a copy of Acid Tongue… I really couldn’t care less until we drove from Tucson to Phoenix, AZ together in her 2000 Mercury Cougar and I was forced to listen to it in its entirety. Acid Tongue was all of the things that Rabbit aspired to be; an excellently crafted suite of quality songs squeezed into the shape of a time-tested aesthetic that didn’t really belong to its author. The through-line in her catalog seems to be the disappointment that comes with a vulnerability that’s been abused one way or another, and the folk chanteuse character she put on for Rabbit Fur Coat didn’t really do the songs many favors. While Acid Tongue’s world-weariness fared better, it still certainly felt like a put on to more than a small degree.
Earlier this week, I sat on the back porch of a home recently purchased by my dear friends Jason P. Woodbury and Becky Bartkowski. They are culture professionals by trade and disposition, so it was with some trepidation that I brought up the upcoming release of The Voyager. I thought for sure that their sterling taste would preclude them from taking anything from Jenny Lewis too seriously, particularly in light of a recent Pitchfork article on female sadness in indie rock, which had kept an early and particularly saccharine Rilo Kiley track, “Pictures of Success” on my mind. In fact, they had already listened to the record and given their approval. The next morning I started the stream as I got ready for the day, and damn it if I my socks weren’t knocked off as quickly as I put them on (I am so sorry). Not only are the songs just as good as or better than her previous releases, but this time around it seems like the only character she’s put on is her self. There is not a dominant vibe, style, or shape to these songs. The subject matter is often well worn for her catalog, but the record is all the better for it- she knows what works and what doesn’t, and with this effort she has put forth her mission statement the best she ever has. She’s Jenny Lewis: she sometimes wants a baby, sometimes wants a husband, sometimes wants the spotlight, and sometimes wants you to fuck off.
I struggle with friendship as much as I struggle with navigating the perverse, exploitative, nothing-to-do-with-music music industry, and one lesson that I’ve learned about friendship that may be applicable to our relationships with the artists we support is that, to a certain extent, you often don’t get to choose your friends. Circumstance brings you together and shows you all the reasons why you are kin on some level, and once that’s happened, it doesn’t matter what comes between you or keeps you apart, because there are ways that you will always be connected. Or, to put it another way, you won’t always like your friends, but the bonds you have with them are something you don’t have with everyone else, and are a thing to be cherished. I feel like Jenny Lewis (the artist, not the person) is my friend now, and has been for quite a long time. Every once in a while I might need a reminder of why I really do like her, but once I get that reminder, it’s love. And that’s why she’ll get 20 or so of my dollars when her new record hits the shelves.
Listen to The Voyager and read Anne Powers’ take on the artist and her work here.