Jenny Lewis has been in the spotlight since her childhood acting days in the 1980s. Also the daughter of two Las Vegas lounge singers, you could say she was destined to be a performer. Whichever way you view Lewis, there is little debate her songs have been some of indie rock’s most defining tunes over the last two decades. Her vulnerable and fluid sense of storytelling, coupled with her delicate, womanly vocal inflection have long made her a revered and adored singer.
Over twenty years since helping form Rilo Kiley, Lewis’ songs still possess a diaristic quality. On recent material, her personal diatribes typically reside over a sunnier sound. 2014’s The Voyager was a pop-rock triumph, recalling Fleetwood Mac with its infectious hooks and simple yet brilliant melodic arrangements. Her latest record On The Line follows suit with direct and straightforward song structures, melding a mild Americana aesthetic with booming piano rock.
From an emotional perspective, throughout On The Line, Lewis dives into familiar territory, spinning tales of loneliness derived from lost love and analyzing the aftermath of relationships strung out over the inevitability of growing old and having a change of heart. The title track opens with an instant heartbreaker: “It used to be Bobby forever, we were together day and night, he left me for an Eastside girl called Caroline.” On the surface, these moments hit the same soft spots Lewis’ sad girl anthems did ten years ago, but it’s the precise descriptiveness of her lyrics that prove so effective on this particular album.
On the epic piano ballad “Hollywood Lawn,” she makes the act of missing someone throughout a normal day sound exceptionally poetic: “On a Hollywood lawn today, slip and slide, watching the kids play, you know that I love you babe, dozin’ off, watchin’ the channels change.” In addition to the way Lewis phrases her stories, the lyrical angles she takes on each track has a vague mystique to it that entices you to dive in even more. She lays out the details, sings her guts out and leaves the rest for the listener to decipher.
Though On The Line doesn’t stray far from the upbeat pop sound of its predecessor, it places emphasis on a few distinct qualities, soundwise. For one, the use of the organ subtly dominates many of the tracks on the album. When it works, it amplifies the given song to sound rich and full of life. Other times, it gets buried in the mix as another muddling noise. “Heads Gonna Roll” – a captivating and excellently performed meditation on the idea of ‘what will be, will be’ – is a case of the former. When the organ enters, it gives the song a jolt of energy and a vintage quality that starts the album off on a hot note.
“Wasted Youth” and “Red Bull & Hennessy” lean back towards the pop-friendly sound pallet Lewis has become so comfortable in this decade. The cute piano melody and watery guitars on “Wasted Youth” play up a sharp contrast to the themes expressed in the song’s lyrics – a direct reference to the heroin addiction that troubled Lewis’ mother during her and her sister’s childhood. The fun and blissful rhythms on the track can also be interpreted as the carefree daze which many drug users find themselves in. “Hennessy,” on the other hand, opts for rock ‘n’ roll, with Lewis wailing through each verse into an infectious chorus. It’s one of the breezier songs on the record, though its replay value lies in the vibe instead of the substance.
The strength of the record unquestionably lies in the first four songs. Unfortunately, much of the remaining material loses the little bite the music had to begin with. The instrumentals become uneventful, the song structures overly basic, and Lewis’ storytelling, though still thoughtful and well-penned, does little to save the album from becoming repetitive. “Do Si Do” kicks off as steady and catchy indie pop jam, but despite some crashing synths on the chorus and bridge, never manifests into anything exciting. “Party Clown” is one of a few tracks on the record’s back half that features a dull piano lead and half-hearted hook. Though a little tedious in its pacing, “Little White Dove” at least breathes some life into the album’s last leg with Lewis belting out emphatically throughout the song.
At this stage in Jenny Lewis’ career, On The Line is a decent release with lots to offer. Her songwriting still shows flashes of greatness, but musically, her and the studio ensemble (which includes Ryan Adams, Beck and Ringo Starr, among many others) struggle to create much excitement outside of a few compelling compositions. There is simply not enough flavor in the instrumentals to peak a new listener’s interest over the course of the entire record, even if the lyrics are artfully assembled. Perhaps that is an indicator that this album is best suited for a more mature audience. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to Lewis who it resonates with, as the songs on this album ultimately sound more therapeutic than aspirational.