I’m sitting on a velvet seat in the faded glory of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, waiting to hear songs from Rabbit Fur Coat, a country gospel record that explores similar territory to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, with disquieting lyrical phrases that often feel modern but are traditional in that they – as with folksongs, tales, myths – follow a dream-logic.
This is last date of Jenny Lewis’s current tour but, having a lifelong work ethic, she was previously in the UK only three months ago – a few weeks after the release of Rabbit Fur Coat. Support is courtesy of fellow band-member Johnathan Rice. He takes to the stage with his acoustic guitar and – well, no, he isn’t Damien Rice or anything, but I don’t get along with his tone. All I can do is applaud the version of Who Do You Love, the accompanying slide guitar in particular, and move on.
The female singers the Watson twins are in black. They step onstage slowly, slowly. Jenny Lewis follows in flowing dress and with similar ritual. The a cappella Run Devil Run leads to The Big Guns, and a minute into that and the whole band is ready to play along. They give us a laidback Happy with shimmering slide guitar, while what follows is just as Jenny says – “more of a toe-tapper”. Regardless of pace, though, You Are What You Love is particularly pessimistic. It attempts to obscure this pessimism, and the attempt becomes part of a theme that runs through the title track. Jenny’s lines are generally too sleight-of-hand, too impressionistic for up-close listening, which is fine, but I’d love to have heard the earlier, more straightforward draft of Rabbit Fur Coat I’ve read about.
As it is, although tonight has the edge over the recorded song, what we get is Jenny, her acoustic guitar, and those swirling, autobiographical allusions. It’s elsewhere I’m reminded that, however impressionistic she chooses to be, Jenny can still express better than most the paradox of needing to be loved and being unable to take it. And any kind of optimism sounds remarkable when it appears against a firsthand yet still peripheral experience of Hollywood – that is to say, against a backdrop of addiction, debt, suicide and the general fallout from ambition, rather than rare success.
When Jenny announces that she’s about to play a new song, I wonder what she will sing. Beautiful, sorrowful phrases (“There is no easy way to say goodbye”, “There’ll be no sleeping tonight”) soon drift through the air, but I realize it’s the whole of the music that impresses me. Jenny plays two new songs tonight. That one – very reminiscent of The Rolling Stones‘ take on Love In Vain – and one which she calls When Jack Came Home and introduces as “a beautiful love story”. Believe it or not, it appears to be an Oedipal comedy of sorts, with a gospel-blues sound that makes it run like an Aretha Franklin session.
Born Secular warns us we are drawing towards a close. Jenny plays keyboards, and the track highlights the outrageously skilful drummer, and delayed effects shoot from the stage. Now we’re into the encores, which comprise a Christian song, a version of I Met Him On Sunday, and a playful It Wasn’t Me. The pressure is off, and Jenny tries a singalong, and – well, we try. We smile and feel innocent, and I look forward to hearing those new songs again.