by Fiel Estrella
There have been many incarnations of Jenny Lewis within her lifetime: an actress at age nine, vocalist of indie-rock darlings Rilo Kiley at age twenty-two, an artist in her own right eight years later, one-half of a duo with longtime boyfriend Jonathan Rice, and now a rainbow suit-wearing troubadette who sings of love, heartbreak, and introspection. At each point, she is earnest and fully in the moment, unapologetic and raw. Jenny Lewis is true-blue in everything she chooses to be.
Her thirteen years of acting (concluding in 1998, although she still takes the odd role from time to time) includes credits on episodes of the 1980s rebirth of The Twilight Zone and The Golden Girls as well as in films like The Wizard, Troop Beverly Hills, and Pleasantville. She told the New York Times in 2014 that acting led her to meet Corey Haim, who would hand her a cassette tape at a posh child star party and completely change her life—the tape contained hip-hop, which she wholly devoured and became her doorway to writing songs.
It was with fellow actor Blake Sennett that she began working on and eventually fine-tuned her songwriting skills, and in 1998, they formed Rilo Kiley (which she had wanted to call Love’s Way, a reference to her musician parents, but this was vetoed by Sennett), a four-piece specializing in reluctant romances, dry irony, and passive-aggressive out-loud thinking. The band released five albums before going on hiatus and finally breaking up in 2011.
If Rilo Kiley was a comfort zone of sorts, then Lewis had stepped out of it long before it imploded. In the early 2000s, she provided backing vocals for The Postal Service, of “Such Great Heights” fame, with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard singing lead. Lewis released her first solo record Rabbit Fur Coat, featuring the Watson Twins, in 2006, and followed it up with Acid Tongue in 2009. Both efforts are distinctly Lewis as she was known then, but tonally different somehow. In 2010, she and Rice came out with the album I’m Having Fun Now, going by the name Jenny and Johnny.
For a few years after that, Jenny Lewis lay dormant, perhaps to take a breather and gather herself. The reality, though, is that her third album was in production for five years. She had also been busy returning to film—on soundtracks, that is, writing original songs and scores (sometimes with Jonathan Rice) for Very Good Girls, Song One, and Ricki and the Flash. But when she finally came back, she played up her fiery red hair, traded in her lace dresses for spray-painted pants, and brought out a matching guitar. She had always been independent. But it felt like she had finally come into her own.
It’s important to note that although Lewis as she is now is a radically different woman from the girl she used to be, it still makes sense to map out how she got to be that way. Such a case is not dissimilar to why people keep journals, take pictures, or study history. We always come back to our roots. This is exactly what Lewis has done with her third solo effort, The Voyager, a fusion of folk and indie rock released in 2014 to positive reviews.
Produced mainly by Ryan Adams at his own PAX-AM studio, the album reportedly drew from the double impact of Rilo Kiley’s non-breakup (they never did make things official, only left them hanging) and the death of Lewis’s father. The concepts of loss, grief, and significant life adjustments are palpable within the ten tracks indeed, but to take their simplicity at face value would be foolish, because it’s only a façade. The Voyager is made up of layers, semantic and sonic alike, from varying degrees of growth and observation to the backing vocals and rich instrumentals. The dissonance between music and lyrics alone a marvel. Lewis herself is at her complicated best, and more and more pieces of her come undone and reveal themselves at every listen.
With all that said, there are two main themes that seem to make up this album: One is the Self (age, womanhood, transition), which this piece will tackle first, and the other is Relationships (selfexplanatory). Both are equally messy and exploratory. Lewis wastes no time making that apparent in opening track “Head Underwater,” a modest opener with pure guitars that builds to enough rhythmic backbone before going steady. “I’m not the same woman that you were used to,” she proclaims, and the rest of the lyrics echo this sentiment—it’s a toast to new beginnings, to catharsis, to being seasoned but being far from burning out. It’s a tune that’s sure and hopeful.
In fact, no matter how insecure or down-and-out Lewis sounds in the tracks that may be filed under the Self category, she always finishes off jubilant, enlightened, or at the very least, resolute. Take, for example, lead single “Just One of the Guys,” the essence of which is quite a bit vaguer than most Lewis-penned lyrics (she’s usually so frank) and still, there’s so much character and feeling in the lines. The persona is very much set in her ways. There’s a certain attempt to conform to ideals like marriage and other images of adult life, which would be de rigueur by now for Lewis and her peers, as she is in her late thirties, but as the chorus goes, no matter how hard she tries, there’s always something keeping her from being pinned down—”It’s how I live.” By the end she is resistant: “I’m not gonna break for you, I’m not gonna pray for you.” Screw those standards. A similar reluctance to settle is found in “Aloha & the Three Johns,” in which she muses, “Is this the beginning of expectation? Or is this the end of our vacation?”
The centerpiece of her Self songs, and of the album itself, at track five, is the gorgeous countryinfused “Late Bloomer,” which explores themes of coming of age, restlessness, and even gender. The Voyager is an album of narratives, and “Late Bloomer” is the strongest of them, practically coming across as the summary of a great novel you’d want to read over and over: The story of two girls, one great song, and a journey across Europe in search of an answer. It is by turns empowering, beautiful, bittersweet, and ultimately sad, painting the most accurate and stark portrait of loss with just one line: “I promised I’d write her, but I never did.”
It seems as though Lewis has gotten good at goodbyes, or maybe just used to them. The two breakup songs on the album make this evident. Now that the subject of identity and actualization has been realized, it would be wise to move on to the Relationships side of the record, beginning with another single, “She’s Not Me,” a somber (and sober) confessional track with violins about doomed grownup love. It’s definitely a contrast to Rilo Kiley’s songs about youthful romance, casual sex, and the complications of dating in your twenties. This time around she’s sincerely rueful and pleading, but the dry wit remains: “Heard she’s having your baby,” is followed by “Bet you tell her I’m crazy.” Meanwhile, “The New You” has a vibe akin to that of the Like in their Release Me era and could be a companion to “Head Underwater,” only this time the focus is on a separation and the changes are being highlighted in the ex-significant other who left her hanging.
“Slippery Slopes” takes us back to that purgatory between the recklessness of young adulthood and the responsibility of real maturity. Amidst jangly guitars, she sings of hedonistic love, delicate situations, blurred perceptions, and, as she so bluntly states in closing, “sleeping with bros.” In such a make-it-or-break-it situation, her attitude is careful but openly wanting. Things aren’t quite the same in the Haim-esque “Love U Forever.” Here, Lewis truly, madly lets herself go. Her takes on romance have always been a little unconventional, but now she’s saying only what needs to be said with absolute certainty: “I could love you forever. I could love you until all the Polaroids fade.” After so much doubt and falling back into old ways, to actually entertain certain possibilities brings us full circle, to when she was proudly announcing her self-made reinvention.
But not just yet. The final track is also the title track, “The Voyager,” and it’s in a league all its own. Aside from the obvious NASA references, this sweeping, sweet song is about strength, and those three pesky subjects that drove Lewis to make the album in the first place—grief, change, loss. Faced with a meteoric tribulation, she channels her vulnerability into nostalgia and positivity. Her voice is even a little higher, a little more persuasive, and it calls on the listener to believe in what she’s singing. The Voyager’s in all of us.
Jenny Lewis had something to excavate, maybe something to prove on The Voyager. With her signature tell-it-like-it-is kitsch and lyricism, she was able not only to dig deep into the depths of herself but also to find beauty in what she discovered and present it to the world as it is. You can glimpse every single reflection she’s ever seen in the mirror with each track. They justify—they give depth—the person and artist that she has become. She may have occupied so many identities, but really, she’s only ever been herself, bruises, desires, demons, and all.