Just Because Jenny Lewis Is Easy to Love Doesn’t Mean You Should Dismiss Her Music

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Aug. 4 2014 10:21 AM

Not Gonna Break for You

California songs about American mistakes from Jenny Lewis.

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Jenny Lewis.

Courtesy of Jenny Lewis via Facebook

It was a decade ago that I became aware of Los Angeles songwriter Jenny Lewis, first lured in by “Portions for Foxes” by Rilo Kiley, the indie rock band she fronted with her then-partner Blake Sennett. It’s a guitar-tangled, messy-bedroom story, with Lewis’ slightly out-of-breath vocals banking around the corners of a lust triangle as if drawn by an inevitability:

And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left.
And it’s bad news, baby, I’m bad news
I’m just bad news bad news bad news.

It showed off many of Lewis’ strengths as a songwriter: an almost gossipy relish in people making bad decisions, especially sexually; a killer instinct for the consequential moment; and a fearlessness about calling herself out, but without slighting her own significance, no matter how screwed up she may feel. Her voice clinched it, an actor’s instrument by turns beguiling and standoffish, staking it all on the sheer energy of narrative. Ever since, listening to Lewis, I notice how she sifts the details of her stories and then gathers them up to verbal and musical peaks—the bits that demand repeat play, the lines you’ll sing back to yourself in the shower, the parts in italics.

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There are many such heights on Lewis’ new solo album, The Voyager. On the second track, “She’s Not Me,” for instance, there’s the point when a Stevie Nicks groove of a gripe about an ex’s new lover gives way to another truth in a suddenly tougher Chrissie Hynde lip-curl: “Remember the night I destroyed it all/ when I told you I cheated/ and you punched through the drywall/ I took you for granted/ When you were all that I needed,” each stressed phrase thumped home with a double-strike of symphonic strings.

Then there’s the first single, “Just One of the Guys,” which has brought Lewis to new audiences thanks to a video featuring her Hollywood friends Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, and Brie Larson done up as slimy dudes in ’staches and track suits. At its pivot point, the track’s girl-group wall of sound (produced by Beck) falls away and Lewis calls herself “just another lady without a baby.” Many listeners have taken it as confessing fertility angst, but it’s really about why someone like her is seen (including by herself) differently than any male musician her age would be. Notice that the song opens by complaining about her guy friends dating ever-younger women. The sharpest sting, though, comes at the end, when Lewis drawls, “I’m not gonna break for you, I’m not gonna pray for you, I’m not gonna pay for you/ That’s not what ladies do”—a rebuttal to decades of rock-guy songs like Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” with its patronizing guff about how the object of his semi-attentions “breaks just like a little girl.”

There aren’t a lot of songwriters who reliably locate these sorts of melodic, dynamic and emotional pinnacles. But it doesn’t happen in every song, and on first exposure, Lewis’ vocals and her style can seem merely conventionally attractive. That’s convenient for anyone who’d prefer to dismiss a pretty California redhead who carries casually her book and street smarts, vocal facility, dress sense, and sass. In navigating the passage between indie cult status and more mainstream fame, she runs up against people for whom the very obviousness of her appeal is a reason to resist it.

Rilo Kiley always walked a line between DIY authenticity, with its ties to Nebraska’s Saddle Creek label, and the fact that it was a thoroughly Californian outfit led by two former child actors (Lewis was a tween star in films like Troop Beverly Hills 25 years ago). But the band’s evolution to an ever more Technicolor, wide-screen sound was purposeful. As Robert Christgau pinpointed it in 2004, in “a subculture where obscurantism is expected, that [their songs] have meanings at all suggests why they sound the way they do. It's a formal commitment. Rilo Kiley want to be understood.”

With Lewis’ and Sennett’s romance long ended, the wheels finally came off Rilo Kiley somewhere around 2010. The Voyager emerges after a period of mourning for that loss, as well as the death of her long-absent musician father and other personal troubles. The result is her first solo album that doesn’t sound like a side project—not exactly a coming-of-age, because I wouldn’t have called her immature a decade ago, but it’s definitely a kind of reckoning. Lewis is living with fellow songwriter Johnathan Rice (with whom she made 2010’s I’m Having Fun Now as Jenny and Johnny) and sizing up the implications of staying the course, both as a romantic partner and as a solo artist, including the pleasures and accumulated damages of the musician’s lifestyle.

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Musically it is her most Californian album yet. Produced mainly in the studio of self-styled auteur Ryan Adams, it owes a lot more to Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac, Brian Wilson, the Bangles, and even Sheryl Crow than to anything indie, or to the Appalachian drag Lewis affected on her first solo record, Rabbit Fur Coat (2006). It’s also supremely Californian in its sexual and psychoactive-substance mores, fuzzy psychoanalysis, hotel hedonism, flirtations with polyamory, and general body consciousness. She deals in contradictions, but less often in irony.

It’s a feminist album in many ways, but more in the vein of interpersonal dramas of recrimination and regret than the broader social confrontation you might expect from a like-minded songwriter in Brooklyn. Lewis is driving away in designer sandals, not stomping out in army boots, with a sticker that reads “The journey, not the destination,” on her rear bumper. Hell, this is an album that comes complete with its own wine pairing. You either raise a glass to her brazenness or pour the thing down the sink.

Everyone’s aware of the East Coast–West Coast split in hip-hop. The subject doesn’t come up so much around rock. But I can’t be alone in carrying an anti–West Coast bias, and particularly an anti-SoCal one. Maybe it traces to growing up in the hair-metal era, when all the silliest spandex-wrapped groups in music videos stalked the Sunset Strip. Or maybe it’s just an instilled prejudice against Los Angeles itself, which I never visited before I was an adult and pictured as a car-clogged hellscape of shallow disconnection and cash-powered culture, because New York propagandists like Woody Allen told me so.

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