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Singing like she never has before, Jenny Lewis puts it all On The Line

Photo: Autumn de Wilde

Nobody would ever accuse Jenny Lewis of being circumspect. The catalog of her first band, ’00s indie-pop pace-setters Rilo Kiley, zeroed in on twentysomething emotional turbulence—the kind of tumult driven by ennui and loneliness intersecting with the euphoria of adulthood—with pinpoint accuracy. Her solo albums, especially 2006’s warm, country-leaning Rabbit Fur Coat and 2014’s kaleidoscopic rock outing The Voyager, were similarly pointed. Yet despite this veneer of vulnerability, Lewis excelled at preserving her own personal mystery. Thanks to coy (and wry) vocal mannerisms and blurred narrative perspectives, she achieved the delicate balance of appearing deeply confessional, while never giving everything away.

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That’s changed with her probing fourth solo album, the slow-burning On The Line. Lewis has spoken candidly in recent interviews about how the death of her once-estranged mom and the dissolution of her 12-year relationship with Johnathan Rice cast a long shadow over the record’s multi-year genesis. And while these seismic events still filter into her lyrics in abstract and fanciful ways, as if refracted by a prism, she is more direct about the literal and figurative trauma wrought by this havoc. The protagonists of her songs overdo it on booze and bad decisions, go on mischievous adventures with mysterious characters (including a “narcoleptic poet from Duluth”), and have tearful and acrimonious fights. Throw in a smattering of pop culture nods (i.e., Candy Crush, Elliott Smith, crying like Meryl Streep), along with a woozy grasp on time and space, and On The Line feels dosed with faint mists of magical realism.

The most noticeable (and intriguing) difference between this album and the rest of Lewis’ catalog is how she sings about this chaos. That’s largely because of her studio approach this time around: She cut most of her vocals live, and often did so while playing along with her band on the same baby grand Carole King used on her iconic ’70s folk-pop LP Tapestry. “I am a better singer when I am playing an instrument in the studio,” Lewis said. “Less in my head. Less of a showboat. It’s like it erases all the child actor perfection shit that I learned as a kid.” This led to glorious, illuminating musical details; for example, on the title track, her pounding piano chords march in lockstep with the line “Whenever things get complicated, you run away to Mexico.” However, Lewis has also emerged as a more unselfconscious, chameleonic vocalist: She dips and croons, trying on vocal tones—a soapy falsetto here, sophisticated belting there, cheeky vibrato elsewhere—like someone let loose in a vintage costume store to slip on outfits.

At times, this also means On The Line feels as though listeners are eavesdropping on private revelations—or at least moments when Lewis is cycling through still-raw snapshots of her turbulent recent years. The emotional tilt-a-wheel “Dogwood,” which chronicles the moment a relationship starts violently fissuring, finds Lewis alternating between a voice that’s full-throated and proud, and fragile and vulnerable. The flickering-candle ballad “Taffy,” dominated solely by melancholy piano and quivering strings, captures the defiance and desperation that goes hand in hand with the knowledge that a partnership isn’t worth salvaging. “Little White Dove” references the end of her mom’s life with matter-of-fact strength; Jim Keltner’s drums are sturdy behind Lewis as she sings in a bold, brassy voice.

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Keltner, a decorated session drummer, is far from the only big name on the album. Lewis recruited a top-notch band—including Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, noted producer Don Was on bass and, on two songs, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr—to bring her vision to life, and enlisted Beck as a producer. As a result, On The Line is deeply rooted in the no-frills slickness of ’70s pop-rock. Carole King is, unsurprisingly, an influence, although the Stevie Nicks vibes are strong on the melancholy pop-rocker “Red Bull & Hennessey” (with a dash of Kate Bush thrown in, specifically Lewis’ shrieking on the chorus) and gospel flourishes crop up on “Hollywood Lawn.” The occasional modern nod—namely, the synthesizer-heavy “Do Si Do,” on which Beck plays—smartly marks the album as appearing in 2019.

Ryan Adams is also credited with production and guitar on eight tracks, although Lewis minimized his ultimate involvement, telling The Washington Post the pair “began the record together two years ago, and after five or six days in the studio we stopped working together.” Adams’ On The Line presence indeed feels negligible; reverb-coated, jangly riffs on “Wasted Youth” are most identifiable as one of his contributions. Far more prominent as influences are Beck’s sleepy-eyed space-funk production and the vocals-first approach of mixer Shawn Everett, who also did Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.

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On The Line ends on a high note, the brisk, Traveling Wilburys-esque country-rocker “Rabbit Hole.” On the song, Lewis vows to shed a particularly bad influence—“Boy, you had me second-guessing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones”—as Tench’s Hammond B3 adds almost merry accompaniment. It’s likely no accident that this song feels like a firm demarcation, like someone putting their foot down and refusing to go back to how things used to be. On The Line preserves the irreverence and honesty of her past work, but underscores that Lewis is finding a new, deeper musical path drawing from—but not beholden to—grief and rebirth.

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About the author

Annie Zaleski

Cleveland-based writer seen in many places. Fond of dusty record stores, good sushi and R.E.M.