Jenny Lewis: On the Line – Every track is a pop-rock jewel
On the Line
Prolonged bouts of insomnia can do things to a person, as can the break-up of a long-term relationship and the death of a parent. Just ask Jenny Lewis, the American songwriter and former frontwoman of Rilo Kiley, one of the signature indie bands of the past 15 years. Lewis’s 2014 solo record, The Voyager, was shaped by her almost three-year struggle with insomnia, which was brought on in 2010 when she fainted in a bathroom and struck her head on the tiled floor. That album’s woozy quality (the song Head Underwater alluded to the ailment), alongside its batch of slanting and lilting pop songs, gave Lewis her biggest commercial success.
Fast-forward several years: with her insomnia waning somewhat, one lengthy relationship shattered (with songwriter Johnathan Rice, after 12 years) and another strengthened (with her mother, estranged for the best part of 20 years, as she was dying). Processing such emotions, which ranged from the break-up with Rice (who, says Lewis, didn’t believe that her insomnia had been triggered by head trauma) and visiting her ill mother in hospital every day for months (“we would sing, talk about records, all the songs she loved”) to alleviating her insomnia while watching late-night television boxing matches bleeds into On the Line. Being aware of the aforementioned makes it occasionally tough to engage with, but virtually every track here is a durable pop-rock jewel.
Leaving Hollywood for bouts of writing in New York and Nashville, and bringing in Beck and Ryan Adams as co-producers (the latter produced most of the tracks on The Voyager), the album has a full, if not old-fashioned, stately sound. This, of course, is not too surprising when you have dignified pianos and suave string arrangements as well as experienced session players such as Don Was (bass), Benmont Tench (keyboards), and Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr sharing drum duties. The innate musicianship plays a large part in providing the layers around Lewis’s melody lines – there is nothing on the album you could call sparse – while the lyrics deftly emphasise the emotional and pharmaceutical push and pull of her life in the past five years. One of the record’s most powerful songs, Little White Dove (“under a cold white sheet … a mother and child emergency, behind a yellow curtain on the second floor”), was part-written as she was waiting in a hospital hallway awaiting updates about her mother from the medical staff.
As The Voyager is to her father, so On the Line is dedicated to her mother. Such personal touches might go against certain views that would mark Lewis out as a wry, flippant songwriter, but for many she is at her best when she merges serious, tersely observed themes with elegant pop tunes. “Listen to my heart beating,” Lewis sings on the foot-tapping title track. You could easily apply those words across the album as a whole, as she successfully attempts to make sense of (and peace with) private turmoil.