Jenny Lewis’s On the Line Satisfies Even When It Stretches

It’s probably not fair to think of Jenny Lewis as a “child star turned musician” anymore. After all, she made that pivot over twenty years ago when she formed Rilo Kiley, a perennially underrated indie band responsible for one of my favorite songs of all time, and proved she had real staying power as she transitioned gracefully into one-shot duo Jenny and Johnny with then-beau Johnathan Rice (a pairing that penned one of the best songs about the recession) and eventually her own well-regarded solo career. And yet, I couldn’t help but think of her thespian past, and how it must inform a lot of the artistic choices on her new album On the Line.

Throughout her musical journey, Lewis has always demonstrated a keen ear for the trends of a particular era — Rilo Kiley ran the gamut from emo influenced folk punk to dance-y indie pop, while Jenny and Johnny’s sole release borrowed a little bit from the reverb drenched 2010s surf rock revival — and, while her adaptive instincts have helped her craft quality records, I’d be lying if I said that each stylistic shift didn’t smack a bit of opportunism as well.

There’s certainly no shame in trying to play to the hip new sound (pop’s greatest artists have a well-documented history of doing just that), but, as much as I enjoy Lewis’s output, her chameleonic tendencies have always felt a little deliberate and pre-fabricated to me, almost as if she were still an actress taking on a different role with each album cycle. I know I praised Mitski for taking a similarly detached and theatrical approach on Be the Cowboy, but, on that album, it felt like a technique meant to augment and enhance the songwriting and performances on the record, as well as an innovative push against the “confessional” mode of songwriting expected from most female artists. I’ve never doubted the sincerity of Lewis’s songwriting, but, when the promo images for your new album make you look like something Elton John would hallucinate during a coke binge at a dude ranch, I get the feeling that you may be trying a little hard to push a particular image.

And that’s about where I’m falling on On the Line: it’s a very good record that’s still mildly overproduced, fairly oversung, and definitely overwritten. Jenny Lewis does a great job of playing the role of a Stevie Nicks-esque LA troubadour, but that’s the exact problem: she’s still playing a role and has adopted every obnoxious 70s songwriting accouterment in order to sell that role to the listener. Packed full of jaunty piano, sunset-colored string sections, and more tortured metaphors than you can shake a paisley shawl at, On the Line sees Lewis contorting her lyrics and her voice into unfamiliar positions in an attempt to mold herself into the icon that she desperately wants to be. Often times that works, but sometimes it doesn’t.

Lewis has always been an expressive vocalist with a deft ability to sell a line and, as such, has never really had to prove that she has range. But, for most of On the Line, she feels the need to explore an upper register she barely has, and the result can be piercing and grating in some instances. The same could be said of some of Lewis’s lyrical passages, which can come off as inelegant and contrived. The biggest offender is “Wasted Youth,” an inexplicably sunny track about addiction. Lewis does everything she can to try and nonchalantly stretch out “Mercury hasn’t been in retrograde that long, oh no” into a melodically acceptable phrase, but it sticks out like a sore thumb and feels more like a cloying wink towards astrology-inclined listeners than something you’d actually say to a junkie you suspect of downing your last bottle of bourbon. Conversely, the chorus is half baked, fleshed out with idle “doo-doo doo-doo doos” and punctuated at the end with a fluttering, context deprived “candy crush.” The album’s fifth track, “Do-Si-Do” is guilty of similar crimes, and sees Lewis reminding the listener that “this ain’t no ghetto, Joe” and that “you ain’t no Pharaoh, Flo.” As the only real reconciliation between Lewis’s synthier work with Rilo Kiley and her more recent singer-songwriter schtick, “Do-Si-Do” is easily the most interesting track on the album, but those lines never fail to make me cringe. That rhyming scheme was passé in 1967, and it doesn’t feel exactly feel fresh decades later.

But, by focusing on all of my gripes first, I’ve really buried the lead: On the Line is, for all of its faults, still a really good album, and it probably wouldn’t have reached that level if Lewis had shied away from the riskier elements that test my patience. For every clunky astrology reference, there are about ten moments that are brilliant and evocative and do, in fact, reach the lofty heights Lewis seems to be after.

“Heads Gonna Roll” is an instant classic, a piano-driven ex-burnout’s lament that draws from about a million different 70s rock touchstones. There’s the The Rolling Stones’s hungover luxe (“Smoking Marlboro cigarettes/Almost makes me forget about/Riding on a private jet with you”), a Bohemian specificity which either sounds a lot like Bob Dylan or a lot like Craig Finn (“Took a little trip up North/In a borrowed convertible red Porsche/With a narcoleptic poet from Duluth”), some Springsteenian romanticism (“And he took me to a graveyard/I thought he’d kill me there/And he kissed me on the corner/while the nuns of Harlem stared”) and even a little bit of Procol Harum (what a wonderful organ solo!). The rest of the record features some variations on “Heads Gonna Roll”’s basic framework, most of them successful. “Hollywood Dreamer” is another goldmine of classic rock turns of phrase (I will never not love a singer telling off “trippers and drama queens”) and mixed literary allusions, while “Dogwood,” about Lewis’s attempts to salvage her relationship with Rice, reaches for something more soulful and brings to mind the florid yet down-to-earth arrangements from Natalie Prass’s debut album. And while I don’t love all of the lyrics or the anti-climatic way it unfolds, the lush arrangement and soft, wounded vocal performance of “Taffy” is a showcase for Lewis’s strengths as a performer.

I’d like to conclude that Lewis is more comfortable when she has time to sit down and emote over slower tracks instead of competing with jaunty rhythms, but the existence of “Party Clown” and “On the Line” suggests otherwise. The former definitely reaches for that aforementioned higher range that’s just barely out of Lewis’s reach, but its lyrics paint a vibrant picture of hedonistic youth and its drawbacks that make for one of the more genuine moments on the record. The title track, meanwhile, is a solid kiss-off that melodiously sneers at the conflicted male rock singer archetype, and sees Lewis determined to not be outdone by her amorous partner (“You’re not the only one with a crowd/you’re not the only one who gets down”/You’re not the only one on the town tonight”). She’s playing a modern version of the June Carter roll on “Jackson,” but instead of watching her man make a fool of himself, she’s decided to have her own fun, too. It’d make the perfect closer to the record, but that honor instead goes to “Rabbit Hole,” a pleasant enough track that’s a stylistic holdover from her early work whose presence makes for an abrupt bit of sequencing.

I’ve thus far written around the two most rock focused tracks, “Red Bull & Hennessy” and “Little White Dove,” two songs that perfectly encapsulate the joys and frustrations of On the Line. “Little White Dove” is the best track on the album, largely because its spacious, laid back grooves make for a welcome respite from the more rhythmically staid piano tracks. That it’s one of the more fun tracks on the album is a little ironic considering it’s about Lewis visiting her mother in the hospital while she was dying of cancer, but that’s a difficult thing to process, and what better way to do it than through some Beck produced funk? “Little White Dove” also provides us with my favorite version of Jenny Lewis, the version that voraciously screams “come here!” towards the end of “Portions for Foxes,” the Jenny Lewis version that feels less like a would-be rock god and more like a desperate, unsatisfied, everyday person. You can hear it around the 2:06 and 3:45 marks, when the stately, restrained voice she’s been using for most of the album breaks, and she reaches into the back of her throat to produce the closest thing to a scream on the record. It’s a shame we don’t see that side of her more often on this album. On the Line is certainly vulnerable for what Lewis reveals about herself, but it’s awfully conservative in the way it presents and conveys those details from a musical perspective, which gives me a good idea of what Jenny Lewis has seen and done, but doesn’t always give me a good idea of how she feels.

And really, I’ve felt that way since I heard the lead single. “Red Bull & Hennessey” is the kind of song I usually unequivocally love. It sounds like the kind of hit that Nicks and Tom Petty would collaborate on circa 1981, and it’s propelled forward but a windswept beat that perfectly captures the feeling of “riding” with someone, in that weird, classic rock way people would use the word “riding,” and ends with a righteous guitar solo. But there’s something about that chorus that feels so strained. You can’t really hear it until after the bridge when only the piano and Lewis’s voice remain. The jump in pitch from the words “Red Bull” to “Hennessy” feels awkward, and it transfers to the next part of the chorus, when instead of stretching out “Hennessey” Lewis has to add an extra syllable to “next.” Sometimes I’m able to lose myself in the awesome Bella Donna-ness of the song, sometimes this bothers me, but it always makes me think of the words themselves. Why, exactly, did Lewis choose to sing about this very specific concoction? Is this a thing people actually drink? Is it what Jenny Lewis actually drinks? Is it supposed to convey some erotic feeling that mixes the supercharged caffeine high of Red Bull with the warming buzz of Hennessey?

Whatever it means it gets me thinking about all of the questionable vocal and lyrical choices throughout On the Line, until I actually spin the record again, after which I get lost in the beautifully dried out, LA-ness of it all. This is a record with moments that frustrate me to no end. It is also a record I can’t stop listening too. I can’t recommend it enough.