At the end of 2008 Jeffrey Lewis drew the comic A Year In Love And Music, My Life In 2008. The lightly sketched, uncoloured storyboard reveals a hectic year touring with everyone from Stephen Malkmus to Los Campesinos, during which Lewis’ girlfriend of two years, the keyboard player in his touring band, breaks up with him.
The schism is pictured happening on stage at a show with the break up tearing, or rather blowing, Lewis’s heart out. Throughout the rest of the year, the gaping wound in his chest worsens, and despite maintaining a busy touring schedule, Lewis gradually loses the will to live, his eyes becoming crosses, his future uncertain.
During this dark period, ‘Em Are I was recorded, and the heartache shoots through the songs. For the most part, Lewis conceals his heartache behind the familiar geekish comedy, but the heartache is always there. On the track If Life Exists Lewis extols the restorative and meditative powers of simply strumming two cords on a guitar: “It’s hard to get to bored if you pick the right to cords”.
But the line “And now I have no girlfriend and I wish I was more happy”, swims out of nowhere, and the rest of the song becomes a list of how he could be more happy. Broken Broken Broken Heart is another obvious snapshot of the failed relationship, Lewis blaming himself for the end of the affair and questioning when he will get over it.
Not that the album is a study in misery. Whistle Past The Graveyard is a meditation on life, death, and life after death. A riproaring honkytonk pile-up that would lend itself superlatively to a reworking as a storyboard comic. And Pig Gone To Avalon is a charming remembrance of a loveable porcine, the song is as dumb as the animal it eulogises.
One notable fact about the album is that the songs seem to be better formed than ever before. Perhaps it was the discipline of reworking punk band Crass‘s songs as twee anti-folk that taught Lewis something about how to form a song. And rather than rambling along and stumbling upon a conclusion as he might have been guilty of before, the songs here are more structured.
This new found skell benefits individual songs while being of detriment to the album as a whole. Cute well-formed song after cute well-formed song begins to grate. As Jeff and backing chorus intone “words like voracious just sound like nonsense, after you say them about five times” the album begins to get the feeling of a They Might Be Giants‘ record for kids.
Amid this twee schadenfreude, a highlight of the album album is The Upside-down Cross. Against Jeff’s familiar anti-folk musings on the end of an affair, this song written by brother Jack, also about failed relationships, is a pulsating hunk of rambling rock. Reminiscent of Yo La Tengo‘s lighter moments.
Lewis’ nasal voice is as distinctive and unique as ever, and the songs are soothingly twee. Perhaps too idiosyncratic to be the sort of thing one could truly love, but certainly endearing, beaten, helpless and hopeless enough to make you want to sweep Lewis up in your arms, give him a big hug and take him home. ‘Em Are I is an abandoned puppy of an album that you can’t help but take to heart.