There’s always been an endearing honesty to Jenny Lewis’ songs, right back to the days of Rilo Kiley where she would wrap pretty little indie-folk melodies around dark tales of bi-polar disorder and her mother’s struggles with heroin addiction.
On The Line is Lewis’ first album since 2014’s The Voyager, and continues that rich vein of personal storytelling. The fact that he long-term relationship with fellow musician Jonathan Rice has recently ended and she’s been dealing with the death of her mother gives the songs gathered on her fourth solo album a deeper resonance.
There’s a fine cast of supporting players on On The Line – Ringo Starr plays drums on two tracks, Beck has a production credit on three tracks, and Ryan Adams also receives a guitar and production credit although his presence has, rather understandably, been downplayed somewhat. Yet this is Lewis’ project all the way, featuring songs written without a songwriting partner for the first time since her Rabbit Fur Coat record.
Heads Gonna Roll is a beautifully lilting opener which, as well as featuring Starr on drums also sees Don Was on bass and ex-Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on Hammond organ. Yet those famous names don’t overshadow Lewis, who takes centre stage by reflecting on a break-up, taking in a cast of characters such as “a narcoleptic poet from Duluth” who “disagreed about everything, from Elliott Smith to Grenadine”. It’s a song that proves Lewis has honed her talent at creating a memorable lyric, with lines like “he took me to a graveyard, I thought he’d kill me there, and he kissed me on the corner while the nuns of Harlem stared”.
In fact, Lewis seems to have evolved from a songwriter to a storyteller, and like all good writers, she draws on what she knows. Wasted Youth reflects on addiction – whether it be drugs (“I wasted my youth on a poppy”) or phone apps (“everybody knows we’re in trouble, du-du-du-du Candy Crush”). Little White Dove looks back at Lewis’ mother’s death from cancer while the title track has some intriguing little tit-bits about a former love – “he left me for a superfan called Caroline, oh”.
Lewis’ background as a child star is looked back on in Hollywood Lawn, a place where “your demons come to fight” and the brilliant Red Bull & Hennessy kicks up the pace somewhat, full of stinging guitar riffs before stopping suddenly and unexpectedly as if someone had pulled the plug during recording. On the other end of the scale is Taffy, a wistful piano ballad presumably about her break-up with Rice, filled with the usual trademark Lewis frankness.
While On The Line is an album full of bleak subject matter, there’s an uplifting, even cathartic feel to much of it. It’s the sound of someone coming out of the darkness, and starting to see the light shining through. It’s also an album which gets better with each listen as its little subtleties and intricacies reveal themselves. It’s another fine addition to a canon of work that has, over the last 20 years, been consistently excellent.