jenny lewis, on the line
All at once, in the same breath, she was everywhere. Of course, Jenny Lewis – the real Jenny Lewis – was on the stage of Philadelphia’s Trocadero, flooded by light behind a flower adorned microphone stand. But peppered throughout the rapt audience she faced stood a number of young women whose own styles seemed to echo the artist we were all there to hear. It was the sheer ubiquity of the vintage inspired fedora’s littered throughout the crowd – each brim angled up towards the storied Victorian venue’s ceiling – that made each individual’s channeling of Lewis feel, in that moment, unmistakable. The Rilo Kiley frontwoman was without hers on that night in the summer of 2009, on tour in support of her second solo record, Acid Tongue, but it hardly seemed to matter, as she was often seen with what now seemed like a favored accessory amongst diehard fans. Ten years ago, I wondered if it would be strange to peer out into a crowd and find people who resembled me, no matter how microscopic or mirror like that resemblance might be. But now I mostly remember it as a tangible testament to how much Jenny Lewis has always meant to the first generation that grew up with her music.
Embodying the bold colors and quiet innovation of an impressionist painting, the newly released On The Line unlocks a dreamlike feel that flickers and fades. From the start, “Heads Gonna Roll” is out amongst the clouds, as Lewis recollects a lasting connection in a voice so pretty, weightless and weary it could shatter. “And you think you’re going to heaven and that I am going to hell,” she sings, altogether burdened and free, leaving you certain she’s reached the depths of both. It’s a mesmerizing beginning to a consistently powerful, poignant album that cements its creator as a fearless songwriter. And while its somewhat customary to consider an established artist’s new work in the larger context of their canon, On The Line exists in its own world, and its all the better for it. Stylistically and tonally different from one song to the next, lush arrangements wash over her words and percussion heavy melodies strike and stun like a bolt of lightening. Although it all unfolds in a way that feels seamlessly connected and meaningful, making the space between the slick grooves of “Wasted Youth” to the candy coated sounds of “Rabbit Hole” feel simultaneously daring and remarkably natural. But whether its found within the heat stroke haze of “Hollywood Lawn,” the realizations and rot consuming “Dogwood” or the walk-on-eggshells devastation tiptoeing around “Taffy,” it’s an unforgettably wistful, sweeping and sometimes surreal perspective that’s omnipresent and indispensable throughout the musician’s fourth collection as a solo artist.
I was up front, so close to the stage that I hardly needed my glasses, all the way back in June 2009. Most details are out of reach, but the feeling in the room is one I remember well. There was a real sense of community and friendship between Lewis and her touring band, one that seemed to filter itself back out into the crowd, bonding together strangers that found themselves side-by-side and still, wide-eyed and awe-struck by the same magical combination of words and music materializing just a few feet away. Although at one point in the set – maybe early on, possibly towards the end – she performed “Trying My Best to Love You” backed only by her own acoustic guitar and the vocals of Barbara Gruska and Danielle Haim. It was beautiful- spare and towering and moving all at once. Although it was the way Lewis introduced the song that has stuck with me most. The precise turn of phrase is unclear, and my memory won’t tell me much, but the meaning and substance behind what she said still feels close. She wanted to write a love song that was devoid of cynicism and unselfconscious- an honest, openhearted reflection of her state of mind in that moment. I’m glad she did, and I’m glad she’s still doing it.
By Caitlin Phillips