Jenny Lewis

The Voyager

Jenny Lewis has never been one to mince her words. Over an intermittent solo career and years spent leading L.A. indie-rock darlings Rilo Kiley, her voice – a silky, versatile thing – has channelled rage, despondence and despair in frank, forthright tones, often set to backing so breezy and upbeat that a casual listen might not let on what an expressive lyricist she became. The Voyager, her first solo release in six years, doesn’t deviate from that pattern. Impressively however, it might be her most candid yet.

‘Just One Of The Guys’ – in particular the lyric "When I look at myself all I can see / I’m just another lady without a baby" – has hoovered up column inches since its release (a subsequent, Lewis-directed video featuring Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart and Brie Larson larking about in drag has no doubt helped). It’s a rare thing, a pop song concerning itself with women’s biological clocks, and Lewis tackles the subject with sensitivity. The result is something funny, sweet and searingly honest, all billowing chords and a winning chorus. It sounds, much like the rest of The Voyager, like it came easy.

Yet that was far from the case. Lewis spent much of the five years the album ultimately took to create in a funk that stemmed from the death of her father and gave rise to bouts of severe insomnia. All these events are cited in the opening lines of ‘Head Underwater’, a brilliant, brassy pick-me-up that makes for a bold way to start the LP. "There’s a little bit of magic / Everybody has it / There’s a little bit of fight left in me yet," Lewis asserts over snappy instrumentation and swooping harmonies.

Made with assistance from Beck, Ryan Adams and her boyfriend (and sometime bandmate) Johnathan Rice (all of whom she credits with helping shape something she felt she’d lost her way with), The Voyager sounds lush and expansive throughout; to a fault, even. In an odd way, it recalls the glittery polish of Rilo Kiley’s final LP Under The Blacklight, which focussed on L.A.’s seamy underbelly and left some of their fans bemused. Its better songs hold up well today, though, and their soulful, West Coast vibe is one that carries over here, albeit set against a wider milieu of concern and feeling.

‘Late Bloomer’ sits at the mid-point of the record, and finds Lewis at her incisive best. A coming-of-age story which unfolds in and around the 7th arrondissement of Paris, Lewis’ gimlet eye for detail illuminates the lives of the disenchanted young Americans in Europe who populate the song. The eventual sexual awakening of its protagonist is relayed with candour and empathy, and like ‘Just One Of The Guys’, it all bounces along with irresistible flair.

Elsewhere, allusions to the L.A. riots of 1992, September 11th and NASA’s Voyager programme are interwoven with mentions of Slash’s biography, for example, or a recovering alcoholic who wears out Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. Pop culture looms large in Lewis’ songs, but never overbearingly so, and the fleeting references to historical events adds another facet to her sharp lyricism.

Yet The Voyager certainly isn’t perfect. While its glossy production adds pleasing heft to songs like ‘Head Underwater’ or the fuzzy, moving title track (wherein strings, synth and acoustic guitar soar, bringing to mind Grandaddy circa The Sophtware Slump), it does little for the album’s less memorable offerings, giving them an almost production-line feel. Lewis’ voice is an accomplished, commanding one, and when she’s on song you’re left hanging on her every word; occasionally here you might find yourself skipping to the highlights.

Thankfully though, highlights are plenty. Whether acknowledging unfaithfulness, fretting over her advancing years or giddily professing undying love, Lewis creates songs and characters as compelling as they come. A couple of duds and some overzealous production aside, that is still very much the case on The Voyager.

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