Album Review: Jenny Lewis – On The Line

A few weeks back I listened to Zane Lowe interview Jenny Lewis about her new album On The Line – an interview in which he spent most of the time discussing the men featured on this record, rather than Jenny herself. Even after everything Jenny Lewis had achieved she was still being considered in terms of who she was working with, rather than on her own merits. The recent revelations about one of the producers of this record have threatened to further overshadow this release. So it is pretty wonderful to report that most of the reviews and features written about On The Line have focused on Jenny’s music, life and legacy (unsurprisingly most of these have been written by women).

The fact that Jenny’s music has been so universally celebrated is important. Not every women artist gets that recognition and attention. What then can the humble blogger really contribute to this discussion you might wonder, when there are so many incisive and illuminating discussions of this album already out there? To be honest I have spent the last week wondering the same thing myself. I recently reviewed the new album by The Wild Reeds (whose music owes a debt to Jenny for sure) and I felt confident that it was important I wrote about an album that had received few other online reviews. In contrast there doesn’t seem much more I can add to the already determined facts about On The Line: this is indeed a brilliant album and some of the best work of Jenny’s career. But then I heard Jenny’s voice singing to me ‘do something, while your heart is thumping’ so I decided just to write anyway.

Us fans have been waiting nearly five years for this follow up to The Voyager, as in that time Jenny has dealt with the end of her long term relationship, the death of her mother, moving to New York (and then back to LA again) as well as recording the brilliantly off-kilter Nice As Fuck album with Erika Forster and Tennessee Thomas. The message of that album was ‘Give a Damn’ and she continues to spread that sentiment in On The Line. Jenny wrote all of these songs solo and assembled a band of prestigious classic rock players who help deliver her most cohesive and confident sounding album since Rabbit Fur Coat.

Jenny begins the album with a goodbye to some people in her life on Heads Gonna Roll. The eccentric cast of characters who populate this song (and Lewis’ music as a whole) help to create these intriguing vignettes which are central to her appeal as a lyricist. It’s hard not to speculate who some of these songs are about, even if Jenny has cautioned us against doing just that. But sorry I did find myself googling poets from Duluth, trying to find out whether or not Bill Murray had ever been to Marrakesh (yes) or if Johnathan Rice had blue eyes (yes). Maybe these songs aren’t about these people at all – there’s an aura of mystery to many of them, which just adds to the appeal.

I admit that when I first heard Wasted Youth I did automatically assume it was about her recently ended relationship. Once I learned that the line ‘I wasted my youth on a poppy’, referred to heroin, the song changed again for me. This time it felt so desperately sad in a different way – a portrait of two sisters whose childhood was affected by parents with heroin addiction. Musically it’s a light, almost throwaway lullaby containing real hard truths – sometimes drugs, or a fun relationship, or a computer game are just meaningless ways to enjoy yourself or pass the time. Like everything they crumble away in the end. Jenny doesn’t go so far as to warn us against such a life but she reminds us that ‘we’re here and we’re gone’ so we should ‘do something! While your heart is thumping.’ The sand in the hourglass is slipping away faster than we know.

The delicious ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ might sound on the surface like an escapist party anthem but trouble brews under the surface. There’s a sexual disconnect between lovers which is a symptom of a wider problem, we have it all / it’s falling apart. Her desire to save the relationship seems futile. The album doesn’t work in linear order, so we have breakup songs and rebound songs and songs about her parents all mixed together to reflect the confusion of life, I guess.

Hollywood Lawn contemplates escape – a song for drifters and dreamers everywhere. She has to leave her home, to fight the demons somehow. The hazy blissed-out beginning remembers better days, before her voice begins to stretch and almost break towards the end. Both that song and Dogwood work on evoking place as a metaphor for her state of mind. The latter, Jenny’s favourite on the album, has a beautiful live vocal, conveying the foreboding sense of doom she felt about her slowly unravelling relationship. She played this on the same piano Carole King recorded Tapestry and it sounds equally as stunning as those classic songs.

Beck produced Do Si Do is probably the closest sounding song to the NAF album, a little oddity with lyrics that initially don’t seem to connect to the wider themes of the album. Then in the shuffle of the two step, under the disco ball you realise she is drowning out her sorrows with music. On Party Clown she also seeks hedonism but it sounds kind of nightmarish (it was inspired by SXSW so make of that what you will). In the Sina Grace illustration that goes with the song, scorpions and poisoned apples lurk among the sunshine and rainbows.

A family emergency inspired Little White Dove – a song Jenny wrote while visiting her dying mother at the hospital. Linda Lewis, the central figure in Jenny’s autobiographical masterpiece Rabbit Fur Coat, was long estranged from her daughter. In the distorted sounding song, Jenny casts herself as the little white dove, a messenger of peace at the end of a life cut short by heroin. That word, so loaded, is sung here too but she reclaims it for herself – Jenny is the heroine of this tragedy. A survivor, a bringer of love despite everything that’s gone before. Your heart just breaks for her loss.

And then we have the poetic masterpiece that is Taffy. It’s a song about the desperate and desolate end to a relationship. The narrator is dressed to kill but it’s all in vain. When she looks through his phone she finds the truth she already knew. How could you send her flowers? It’s the gut punch of the whole album, sung to an ominous crescendo of strings.

That low is followed by the title track On The Line, which might be the poppiest song Jenny has written for a long time – a kind of a mash up of 50s and 80s girl group anthems. She may have been cheated on and abandoned by her love but she’s not giving up. Her heart is on the line. As the dial tone rings out maybe it tells us she’s finally over him, out on the town, ready to start again.

She finishes with Rabbit Hole – a statement of intent. Bad habits will be broken. It could be a song about drugs, or a bad boyfriend or even aimed at that wayward producer of hers. The problem is of course that sometimes heading down the rabbit hole can be fun. As she sings in the opening song, a little bit of hooking up is good for the soul. But this finale signals a new resolve. She sounds breezily confident and optimistic about her new future. And with an album this good, who can blame her?

When you have to rebuild your life, it’s never quite the same onerous task as starting from scratch. You get to an age when you know what fits, what pieces of the puzzle you need, what you can make do with, what you can discard forever. Maybe you have to rebuild alone or maybe you’ll be lucky and find someone to help. Jenny in her wisdom, in her life lived, in her music, helps us all to understand that devastation and despair isn’t the end of the story. Listen and you will hear her heart still thumping strong and true On The Line.

Jenny is touring the U.K. this summer:


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