Rilo Kiley, “Does He Love You?”

The world of indie rock is notoriously fickle. Bands that are pegged as buzzworthy usually have just a brief moment in the sun to catch the attention of fans ready to move on to the next big thing. Rilo Kiley seized that moment brilliantly in 2004 with More Adventurous, their outstanding third album which featured the dazzling love-triangle saga “Does He Love You?” as its most ambitious and accomplished song.

At the time of its release, the song’s co-writers, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, often got more attention for their past as child actors than for their music. In a 2008 interview with Vice Magazine, Lewis explained that her Hollywood history wasn’t all bad when it came to her songwriting: “Well I was embarrassed initially. Because at that point I had been playing music for a long time and I had written so many songs that it felt separate. But I think now I’ve come to terms with it a little bit, because it’s a unique part of my life, not many people have had the experiences I’ve had and met the people I’ve met. And I think in this strange way it informed my song-writing, which is really a unique perspective to have.”

“Does He Love You?” would be noteworthy if only for the clever way the story is structured. The narrator is speaking to her pregnant, married friend who lives across the country and is questioning whether the domestic life is the right choice for her. The narrator, on the other hand, is having an affair with a married man. Only in the song’s climax is it revealed that they are both talking about the same guy, as Lewis belts out the bittersweet closing lines: “And your husband will never leave you/He will never leave you for me.”

Yet the song could easily have come off as contrived if the emotions and motivations of the characters weren’t rendered so expertly. Both the narrator and her friend regret the fact that their happiness is tied to another person, both feeling “flawed” that they are “not free.” Lewis’ vocal performance also assures that the song won’t feel like a bad soap opera, as she rises from a gentle, contemplative tone in the early verses to an anguished wail as the song closes out. The music undergoes a similar transformation, with the carnival-like keyboards in the opening verses giving way to squalling guitars and soaring strings in the denouement.

Sadly, Rilo Kiley’s heyday was short-lived; they released just one more album before breaking up. Still, their legacy is secure with More Adventurous, and in “Does He Love You?” they’ve got a signature song that very few bands, no matter their longevity, could hope to match.

“Does He Love You?”

Get a real job
Keep the wind to your back and the sun on your face
All the immediate unknowns are better than knowing this tired and lonely fate.

Does he love you?
Does he love you?
Will he hold your tiny face in his hands?

I guess it’s spring; I didn’t know
It’s always seventy-five with no meltin’ snow
A married man, he visits me
I receive his letters in the mail twice a week

And I think he loves me
and when he leaves her
he’s coming out to California

I guess it all worked out
There’s a ring on your finger and the baby’s due out

You share a place by the park and run a shop for antiques downtown
And he loves you, yeah he loves you, and the two of you will soon become three
And he loves you, even though you used to say you were flawed if you weren’t free

Let’s not forget ourselves good friend
You and I were almost dead
And you’re better off for leavin’
Yeah you’re better off for leavin’

Late at night, I get the phone
You’re at the shop sobbin’ all alone
Your confession is coming out
You only married him, you felt your time was running out

But now you love him, and your baby
At last you are complete
But he’s distant and you found him on the phone pleading saying
‘baby I love you and I’ll leave her and I’m comin’ out to California’

Let’s not forget ourselves good friend
I am flawed if I’m not free
and your husband will never leave you, he will never leave you for me