Waiting is half the fun. To travel is better than to arrive. Delayed gratification. The platitudes keep coming, but they never help: it’s 2006 and still the Jetsons haven’t happened. No flying cars, no robot servants, bad cheekbones. It’s very disappointing.
Still, maybe the tide is about to turn. The problem with Rilo Kiley has been their frustratingly patchy albums. They write a few sublime songs per record and leave us to wait for when all of them are that good. They don’t keep their promises: last year’s More Adventurous seemed to revel in this. The giddy It’s A Hit ran into the torpid Accidntel Deth; the chiming, impeccable Sennett-Lewis Portions For Foxes met Jenny Lewis‘s poorly-scanned, solo I Never.
It’s unexpected, then, that the first album on which all of Lewis’s songs cry genius is the first she has recorded alone, without Sennett. And it’s ironic that, of all previous examples, this record sounds most like I Never- an intimate country-soul delight – though the resemblance is far from complete. This is quite a departure from Rilo Kiley, and the record is as defined by its newly warm production (from Mike Mogis and M Ward) as it is by the presence of the Watson Twins (who sing wonderful cooing backing vocals throughout).
You know it’s special from the first bars. Run Devil Run is a minute a cappella with Lewis and the Watsons, and it’s a remarkable display of technical skill: Lewis does, after all, have one of the most wonderful voices of them all. But this is also surprisingly affecting – the harmonies cut through with a deep Hank Williams sadness.
After this is The Big Guns, all busy guitars and prominent vocals until the second verse, when a thumping bass drum comes to build things to their exultant hand-clapping conclusion. There are no lapses: The Charging Sky, a jaunty pedal-steel spiritual crisis; the quiet, hymnal Born Secular; the rootsy, state of the nation cover of Handle With Care, with Ben Gibbard as Roy Orbison and Conor Oberst as Bob Dylan. Three famous vegans for the price of one.
Through all of this, Lewis’s lyrics only get better: Rise Up With Fists!!talks, as so often on a record preoccupied with the mistakes of the family, about a marriage of convenience: “She will wake up younger / and you will wake up 45 / and she will wake up with a baby / There but for the grace of God go I.” If that looks dour on the page, it’s not at all when sung – ‘a baby’ is repeated by the Watsons in a fanatically cliched coo that also, somehow, gives a lot of Lady Bracknell horror.
At the centre of everything is the title track, Lewis for once totally alone with an acoustic guitar and the true story of her absent mother. It could be awful, but it’s heartbreaking – if only for the stunning, fragile vocal. And as with the rest of the record, it’s hard to pin down the mood here. It’s not happy, it’s not sad, but there’s a kind of comfort that wraps around, a worldly acceptance. Such is the alchemy of musical greatness.