Waiting is half the fun. To travel is better than to arrive. Delayedgratification. The platitudes keep coming, but they never help: it’s 2006and still the Jetsons haven’t happened. No flying cars, no robot servants,bad cheek bones. It’s very disappointing.
Still, maybe the tide is about to turn. The problem with RiloKiley has been their frustratingly patchy albums. They write a fewsublime songs per record and leave us to wait for when all of them are thatgood. They don’t keep their promises: last year’s More Adventurous seemed torevel in this. The giddy It’s A Hit ran into the torpid Accidntel Deth; thechiming, impeccable Sennett-Lewis Portions For Foxes met Jenny Lewis’spoorly-scanned, solo I Never.
It’s unexpected, then, that the first album on which all of Lewis’s songscry genius is the first she has recorded alone, without Sennett. And it’sironic that, of all previous examples, this record sounds most like I Never- an intimate country-soul delight – though the resemblance is far fromcomplete. This is quite a departure from Rilo, and the record is as definedby its newly warm production (from Mike Mogis and M Ward) as it is bythe presence of the Watson Twins (who sing wonderful cooing backing vocalsthroughout).
You know it’s special from the first bars. Run Devil Run is a minute acapella with Lewis and the Watsons, and it’s a remarkable display oftechnical skill: Lewis does, after all, have one of the most wonderfulvoices of them all. But this is also surprisingly affecting – the harmoniescut through with a deep Hank Williams sadness.
After this is The BigGuns, all busy guitars and prominent vocals until the second verse, when athumping bass drum comes to build things to their exultant hand-clappingconclusion. There are no lapses: The Charging Sky, a jaunty pedal-steelspiritual crisis; the quiet, hymnal Born Secular; the rootsy, state of thenation cover of Handle With Care, with Ben Gibbard as Roy Orbison andConor 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 willwake up 45 / and she will wake up with a baby / There but for thegrace of God go I.” If that looks dour on the page, it’s not at all whensung – ‘a baby’ is repeated by the Watsons in a fanatically cliched coo thatalso, somehow, gives a lot of Lady Bracknell horror.
At the centre of everything is the title track, Lewis for once totallyalone with an acoustic guitar and the true story of her absent mother. Itcould be awful, but it’s heartbreaking – if only for the stunning, fragilevocal. And as with the rest of the record, it’s hard to pin down the moodhere. It’s not happy, it’s not sad, but there’s a kind of comfort that wrapsaround, a worldly acceptance. Such is the alchemy of musical greatness.