4 out of 5 stars
At 28 years old, Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis laid a bucket full of twenty-something angst on the table in a song called “Portions For Foxes.” Loneliness, poor decisions, self-loathing – it was all there, culminating in a catchy refrain of “Baby, I’m bad news.” That kind of statement that’s easier to get away with when you’re in your twenties; not that everybody has everything figured out by their thirties, but you’re probably less likely to broadcast it so openly.
That was 10 years ago. Lewis is now 38, and her career has taken a variety of detours since the release of that song and the album it’s from, More Adventurous. She recorded an album with Kentucky duo The Watson Twins. Rilo Kiley broke up. She released an album as a duo with boyfriend Johnathan Rice as Jenny and Johnny, and devoted the better part of a year to touring with recently reunited electronic outfit The Postal Service. And now with The Voyager, her third solo album, she arrives at the next stop in her ongoing journey with a bit more wisdom and even a little optimism.
Lewis didn’t get to that point overnight – the album is called The Voyager for a reason. She described the album in a recent interview as being the hardest album for her to make, which has a lot to do with the four years that led up to it. In 2010, Lewis’ estranged father died, and shortly thereafter her band came to an end. The combined trauma gave her an intense bout of insomnia, and throughout the ten tracks on the album, she undergoes a process of healing that sometimes means facing some ugly truths, even when the music is almost uniformly beautiful.
All over The Voyager, Lewis is nothing if not completely –brutally – honest. She touches upon jealousy, infidelity and anger on “She’s Not Me” (“I took you for granted when you were all that I needed”), her own internal conflicts on “Just One Of The Guys” (“No matter how hard I try to have an open mind/ There’s a little voice inside that prevents me”), a haze of sex and drugs on “Slippery Slopes,” and on “Late Bloomer,” a warm recollection of meeting and eventually losing touch with a kindred spirit.
What separates Lewis’ songs on The Voyager from so many others in her catalog is a kind of affectionate distance there is between her and the stories she tells. She’s always had a knack for spinning a musical yarn that few other singer-songwriters could match, and none of that’s changed here. But it doesn’t feel as if the narrator in her songs is in the thick of it; these are snapshots from a long journey. Many of them don’t always end well, and the whole of the album has a distinct flavor of bittersweet. Yet while Lewis carries the perspective of someone who’s been hurt, or who’s done the hurting, she’s come out the other end a little bit wiser and a little bit stronger. None of this is to say that The Voyager is necessarily (or even likely to be) entirely autobiographical. The catharsis, however, is real.
The Voyager is not just the culmination of a period of personal growth that Lewis has undergone in the last decade – it’s also her best solo effort to date. Lewis hasn’t wanted for inspiration since the release of her country and gospel-tinged debut, Rabbit Fur Coat. But her solo output hasn’t been terribly consistent, detouring into a mish-mash of different pop songwriting styles on Acid Tongue and sacrificing more adventurous songwriting in favor of the cute-couple harmonies of Jenny and Johnny. The Voyager, however, is Lewis’ most cohesive and powerful set of songs since her Rilo Kiley days.
Recorded with Ryan Adams (and Beck and Johnathan Rice), The Voyager mostly dispenses with genre exercises and style hopping in favor of a gorgeously organic rock record. “Slippery Slopes” is the most explicit callback to Rilo Kiley, its dreamy guitar riffs and mid-tempo strut carrying an infectious swagger. Meanwhile, “You Can’t Outrun ‘Em” opens with a dark western strum before transitioning into a stunning Fleetwood Mac-inspired groove. And on opening track “Head Underwater” – perhaps the best of the bunch – she balances an earthy, Laurel Canyon arrangement with one of her most dynamic vocal performances.
That very same track is also the point where Lewis states, matter-of-factly, that something in her has changed: “I’m not the same woman that you are used to.” But more importantly, in all of the post-mortems of relationships, regrets, confessions and doubts she expresses here, she’s never sounded so open-hearted, singing, “There’s a little bit of magic/ Everybody has it.” It’s a disarmingly touching statement, and one that’s hard to pull off without sounding corny. That’s one of the benefits of growing up; as you worry less about what’s cool, you can focus more on figuring out who you really are.