There are already plenty of heavy duty, mainly American, analyses of this album for those that like that sort of thing. I’ll try to keep it simple.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Rilo Kiley’s ‘Portion for Foxes’ as an ‘Inarguable Pop Classic’ and expressed the view Jenny Lewis might reconsider re-forming the band if this fourth album of hers didn’t cut the mustard. As it happens she has since appeared in an interview in which she said, in the 20th anniversary year of Rilo Kiley’s formation, that “anything is possible”.
But as far as ‘On the Line’ is concerned she has nothing to fear. It is quite magnificent, and her best work since 2005’s debut, the sublime Americana-gospel ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ (with The Watson Twins). She followed it with ‘Acid Tongue’ in 2008, a strange album, co-written with boyfriend Johnathan Rice, which had some excellent tracks like ‘Black Sand’ and ‘The Next Messiah’, but equally some questionable ones such as the duet with Elvis Costello on ‘Carpetbaggers’. Then a break until 2014 and ‘The Voyager’ which explored her difficult relationship with her walk-out father (and which, Lewis has revealed, is connected rather more than randomly with ‘On the Line’.)
Along the line, she’s dabbled, inter alia, with (2010) Jenny and Johnny, a whimsical duo with Rice and (2016) the even more quirky all-female trio Nice as Fuck, which has released, mercifully, only one album, as well as a short spell in the “booming Omaha music scene” that she sang about in Rilo Kiley’s ‘The Execution of All Things’.
Which brings us to 2019, five years after ‘The Voyager’ during which time she broke up with Rice, turned 40 and saw her mother die from illness directly related to a lifelong heroin addiction. Cue an album pervaded by a sense of loss and one tailor made for some heart searching and soul baring, and Lewis does it so well she’s even up there challenging her peer Fiona Apple (whose own fifth album is due, seven years after the last one; apparently she has recently been in the studio, Praise the Lord).
‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ had much to do with the relationship she had with her mother and this album puts that relationship to bed, the two having effected a late reconciliation, ending with the final track, ‘Rabbit Hole’, which reprises ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ in an up-tempo manner, even mimicking a Travelling Wilburys style (‘Handle with Care’ was covered on ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’) and in which she sings,
“I’m not gonna go down the rabbit hole/with you, with you, with you again”, and then, “Bad habits will be broken/Boy, I have kicked a few/and seven days off the dope and I’ll be as good as new.”
If there’s any proof needed of Lewis’ lyrical ability (again, she spars with Apple for the #1 position in that department in my view), those lines alone must convince you. And there’s evidence of it on every single track.
Lewis put together an interesting band and production team to make this album, which was recorded live at Capitol Studios, Lewis adding vocals in situ rather than over the instrumental recordings. They include keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ keys man) who plays a wonderful Hammond B3 organ break on the opening track, top session drummer Jim Keltner, and Ringo Starr, who appears on a couple of tracks. Don Was is on bass, while Beck contributed as a producer, assisted by – ahem – Ryan Adams, whose role is being played down (though ever so politely by Lewis because that’s the sort of person she is), so the less said about that the better.
It was mixed by Shawn Everett, who was responsible for Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Grammy Album of the Year’-winning ‘Golden Hour’.
Apart from references to mother, to Rice and to other break-ups, Lewis’ ear for a tune and her wonderful way with words the other thing that stands out about this album is that her home city of Los Angeles is written right through it. Originating in Las Vegas, where her parents had a cabaret double act in which they spoofed Sonny and Cher, Lewis quickly pitched up in L.A. as a child actress and moved through suburbs such as ultra trendy Silver Lake before heading to the shopping mall paradise of The Valley with Rice. She knows the city like the back of her hand and it has always figured in her writing (especially the Laurel Canyon, if I recall) and it is writ large here, too. She has a knack of incorporating it into her songs effortlessly and almost in consequence the setting for them could hardly be anywhere else other than that bizarre metropolitan melting pot of hope and despair.
‘On the Line’ starts with a break-up, presumably the one with Rice, in the track ‘Heads Gonna Roll’. It features percussion from both Keltner and Starr (whose contribution you can spot straight away; as ever with the ex-Beatle it’s like a door just opened to the studio) as if she’s saying something needed beating into Rice’s head.
“Since I haven’t talked to you/I dream about your baby blues/and wonder why you stopped getting high” she starts before drifting off into the detail of a reminiscence about a disagreement over Elliott Smith, the Oscar-nominated musician whose 2003 death is attributed either to suicide or murder, take your pick as many Americans do. It’s the sort of detail that wouldn’t work with many artists but it does with Lewis. Ditto an obscure reference to boxer Floyd Mayweather (“I’m gonna keep on dancing ’til I hear that ringing bell”), or at least as Lewis says, “it could be”.
The twee waltz-like lament ‘Wasted Youth’’s punch line sounds like “I wasted my youth on a puppy” at first hearing but it contains a salutary warning because it is “poppy” – a reference both to a song her father used to sing to her (he was also a user) and the heroin that did for her mother. I’m hard pressed to think of another writer who could incorporate such a notion along with getting a high from Candy Crush and Mercury being in Retrograde (when it appears to circle the Sun in a reverse direction and which has negative connotations in astrology), in one song. A work of genius.
The album’s lead single, the anthemic ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ on which Keltner and Starr batter the senses, is a live-for-the moment recounting of any party taking place anywhere along Hollywood Boulevard on any night of the week, its participants hoping against hope for the good times to arrive at any moment in the back of a yellow cab,
“I’m wired on Red Bull and Hennessy/Higher than you/I’m on fire, c’mon and get next to me/I wanna ride with you/I wanna ride with you”. Whatever you say, Jenny.
‘Hollywood Lawn’ is a slow, beautifully melodic ballad with a venomous hidden message somewhat reminiscent of those on ‘Acid Tongue’, “I’ve had it with you trippers and drama queens”.
The Beck-produced ‘Do Si Do’ (or Dosado), the basic step in a square dance, is the title of another exceptionally melodic and gorgeously chorused track, one that falls somewhere between hip hop and another waltz, and which, according to Lewis, was influenced by her frustrated desire as a kid to be a rapper, though you’d never guess it. In fact, it could be, and should be a mainstream hit single here if anyone at the BBC can be bothered to play it.
‘Dogwood’ returns to break-up territory with Rice, along with booze and amphetamines, as “And somewhere a screw got loose along the way/ and your manners have gone away”. Lewis recognises that rejection can be anticipated and prepared for even if nothing can be done about the destruction of the foundation of a relationship.
‘Party Clown’, as its title suggests, is the saddest song on the album and one that implies that the Devil she met “down in Austin” might be supplying her with something in the Fuji apple which caused her to “go out of my head”. It also contains an odd, and if I read it correctly, disdainful reference to the award show antics of Meryl Streep.
‘Little White Dove,’ featuring Beck on keyboards and supporting vocals, directly references the time she latterly spent with her mother though that isn’t immediately evident on account of the fairly upbeat, if reverential, presentation. Lewis has said she wrote the song because she “didn’t know what to do with herself” at the time, and that “the weed wasn’t working”.
It is easy to overlook the Ryan Adams-produced ‘Taffy’ – most of those U.S. reviews did – but it is sumptuous ballad with terrific lines like,
“I wanted to please you/my dress was see-through/as I looked through your phone” and,
“Nudie pics, I do not regret it/I knew that you were gone/I did so freely and wanted you to see me/off that throne you put me on” supported by wonderful, Beatles-like strings.
The title song, the one with the most memorable tune of all, is left until the penultimate track. Lewis has said that she deliberately sets out to leave four or five different meanings to songs and the album title itself is open to interpretation. A future can be ‘on the line’ for example, and so can a person on a telephone and this particular ex has left her and run off to Mexico as he does every time that “things get complicated,” with an Eastside girl, Caroline, (or Caroline-ugh, as Lewis seems to sing it in a deliciously puerile manner) who is a “super fan”. As the track ends the other person has hung up and that is how it plays out.
Lewis evokes so many images in this album, of events, people and other musicians; it’s hard to know where to start. Musically, Fleetwood Mac immediately comes to mind, and particularly Stevie Nicks. There are sections of ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ when she sounds just like Nicks and then like Kate Bush, and visually she’s starting to look like (if not sound like) Elkie Brooks.
But my preferred analogy is with Carole King. Lewis winds her own tapestry here around a difficult time of her life, with the sweetest voice on offer right now in the Valley, the Canyon and anywhere else in L.A., every word clear and utterly convincing.
‘On the Line’ is out now on Warner Bros.