Jenny Lewis - The Voyager

Track five on the new Jenny Lewis album starts like this: “When I turned 16, I was furious and reckless / Got a Chelsea girl haircut and a plane ticket to Paris.” The song is about meeting another American girl over there and sort-of/kind-of falling in love: “How could I resist her? / I had longed for a big sister / And I wanted to kiss her, but I hadn’t the nerve.” Later in the song, Lewis ends up in a threesome with that girl and with a doofy American songwriter that her soulmate was obsessed with, figuring this would be the only way to get with her at all. Then, the two girls separate and never see each other again. The name of the song is “Late Bloomer,” and it doesn’t even seem to be ironic. (It’s something that Nancy, the other girl, calls Lewis, or the narrator who Lewis is pretending to be, or whatever.) It all seems terribly glamorous, the idea that you could end up in a Parisian three-way at 16 and still think of yourself as a late bloomer. But the song isn’t about the glamor of its story. It’s about feeling lost, attaching yourself to someone and about doing everything you can to hold on to that person, and about losing touch with that person anyway. It’s a song about being lost. And that’s what we get with The Voyager, the new album: A series of finely observed, beautifully recorded, impossibly glamorous songs about being lost.

Lewis is a glamorous California creature herself: A former child actress who’d starred with Fred Savage in The Wizard, one of my favorite dumb movies of 1989, and who’d retired from acting before she was old enough to legally drink so that she could sing in a band instead. That band was Rilo Kiley, who have a reputation, at least among younger female indie rock bands, as being one of the greatest bands of their day but who I’m embarrassed to say I paid little attention while they were around. (Saw them twice, opening for Rainer Maria in a mostly-empty Baltimore bar and opening for Coldplay at Madison Square Garden, apparently didn’t listen closely enough either time.) Lewis added guest vocals for a lot of other bands, most notably the Postal Service. And when she got around to going solo in 2006, she rounded up a cadre of indie rock songwriters for a gimmicky-but-ballsy cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” all of them filling the roles of various enshrined canonical rock figures. In her solo career, Lewis has come up with a handful of great song, but that sense of glamor always made those songs a bit tough to hear. Even after Rilo Kiley broke up, her solo career looked something like a side project. It doesn’t anymore. I need to spend more time with Rilo Kiley’s records to say this with any certainty, but The Voyager feels like the best things Lewis has ever done.

The sense of glamor that Lewis has about her is still here, of course. There are famous California people all over the place on The Voyager. Ryan Adams produced most of the album, and he played liquid noodly guitar solos all over it. Beck produced “Just One Of The Guys,” the single, and he and Lewis played every instrument on it. (This doesn’t apply to the album, of course, but the song’s video has movie stars in it.) The Watson Twins and First Aid Kit and Lou Barlow and Becky Stark all sing backup at various points on the album. If you were wondering what happened to the former Phantom Planet frontman Alex Greenwald, he’s here, playing keyboards on album opener “Head Underwater.” And the actual sound of the album is what happens when you pile all these famous and talented people into a room together and they all make their version of classic shimmering Californian studio-rock together. (I’d taken to calling The Voyager my favorite Tom Petty album in years even before I learned that Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench plays on a couple of songs.) But for all the gloss and professionalism and boldfaced names and casual displays of technical mastery, every arrangement on the album has Lewis’s voice at the absolute center, and that voice sounds better than it ever has: Warm and plummy and conspiratorial and sometimes really sad. And that voice should be at the center, since it has some shattering things to say.

“Just One Of The Guys,” that single, is a great place to start talking about the ridiculous level of lyrical insight on display in The Voyager. On that song, Lewis laments her own inability to act like a romantically callous asshole, especially when she realizes that she’s living a life surrounded by dudes whose entire relationship philosophy comes from Dazed And Confused’s Wooderson. But Lewis doesn’t spell out why this bothers her until the bridge, when most of the instruments drop out an Lewis’s suddenly-vulnerable voice breaks through it all: “There’s only one difference between you and me / When I look at myself, all I can see / I’m just another lady without a baby.” (Lewis is 38, and maybe your experience is different, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met a childless 38-year-old woman who isn’t at least a little bit sad about her lack of kids.) And throughout the album, Lewis is in unflinching relationship-talk mode. “She’s Not Me” is about losing a significant other by cheating and then seeing that person go on to be happy with someone else, feeling pissed about it. “Slippery Slopes” is Lewis talking herself into an open relationship, figuring it might go OK but realizing it probably won’t. “The New You” addresses a dude who used 9/11 as an excuse to get all distant. Even the exultant (and ferociously catchy) “Love You Forever,” a song about being in love and getting married, isn’t really about being in love and getting married; it’s about being fucked up with your friends and expressing absolute disbelief that you’re in love and getting married.

We don’t hear too many albums like this anymore: Finely observed personal efforts that have been made to sound like a million bucks. There’s nothing remotely indie rock about The Voyager, at least not in the way that term has been traditionally understood. The album sparkles like money, and there’s nothing challenging about any of its musical choices. It’s an album for Sunday morning drives or for playing in the background during brunch. It’s an album your mom might like, at least until that one lyric about the coke and the mushrooms jumps out at her. But all those professionally assembled hooks are used in service of a writer whose throwaway lines can kick you in the gut. None of the glamor we can hear on The Voyager has been enough to protect Lewis from serious unhappiness. She doesn’t make a big part of shattering that glamor around her, but she does it anyway, just by being a human being who knows how to write about sadness and lostness. And in finding a way to render all that lostness in the form of music as sunnily pleasant as this, she’s made a truly great album.

The Voyager is out now on Warner Bros. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The guest-heavy recorded version of Beck’s Song Reader.
• Shabazz Palaces’ art-rap exorcism Lese Majesty.
• Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ durable-if-inessential Hypnotic Eye.
• Mark Lanegan band’s weathered, windblown No Bells On Sunday.
• Hooray For Earth’s grandly synthetic Racy.
• Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate)’s epically emo You Will Eventually Be Forgotten.
• Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s expressive J-pop bugout Pika Pika Fantajin.
• Diplo’s Random White Dude Be Everywhere compilation.
• The Muffs’ pop-punk comeback Whoop Dee Doo.
• Prom Body’s lo-fi garage-pop blowout Naughty By Natural.
• The Gems Drop Four compilation.

Comments (26)
  1. I don’t understand the hype around this record, the production sounds so dated and cheap to me. Vocals are nice though.

  2. I was a huge fan of The Execution of All Things and, to a lesser degree Take-Offs and Landings & More Adventurous. I haven’t listened to anything she has done since then but looking forward to giving this a go.

  3. You’re cheating yourself… Take Offs and Execution are two of the best indie albums out there. The Voyager sounds great after just one listen but I prefer her cute (Rilo Kiley) voice to her grown-up sexy (solo) voice, personally.

  4. Sold! I’m going to check this out.

    Surprised to see Lanegan has a new one! I used to be such a fan but he’s really slipped off my radar.

  5. Secret meetings in the stratosphere, eating #CAKE

  6. Was expecting this to be the pick for this week, but y’all are overlooking Lese Majesty big time. This is a record that takes a while to wrap your head around (I’m eight listens in and still discovering things) and reveals its beauty and mission after many careful listens. While a totally different beast than Black Up, it is showing to be of the same caliber for me (critics are also receiving it as well as they did to Black Up).

    • Totally agree. I, too, am about eight listens in and am still not completely sure what’s going on BUT I’m seriously loving being inside of it.

      And it certainly feels like that – no other album I’ve heard this year feels pulls you inside like this one. I’m disappointed by the lack of Gummer discussion re: this album.

      I’m scowling in discontent.

      • Of note in 2011, “Black Up” didn’t even rank in their year-end listen. Not even an honorable mention. It was so odd, that one of the top comments of THE YEAR was simply: “SHABAZZ PALACES?”

        I’ll discuss the living hell out of this album with you. I’ve been listening all month and it’s still settling in. I’ve gotten a pretty good grasp on the astral suites. I even have a loose hypothesis about their being subtle references to casinos (MAJOR WINNINGS, Luxor, Aria). Of course, we all know Shabazz shoots for the ancients.

        Here’s one for start: what’s going on at the end of “Ishmael” with the female talking? Is she hitting on him? He mentions being “chose” but I can’t even make out half of what he’s saying in that song. So subdued in the mix.

        • See man?? I didn’t even realize there WAS a woman talking at the end of Ishmael. I’m focusing the whole time on that lullaby Ish is singing at the beginning, just begging for him to swing back into it, that I never seem to comprehend the rest of the song.

          There are these little moments I get stuck on that keep bringing me back. And every time I listen, I notice a whole other part of the song tacked on that’s just as impressive. Ahhhhh….

          As much as I love To Be Kind, I’m having way more fun sorting through this album – it’s a slightly more relaxing experience.

          • My early passes, I always found myself checking the song name on “Ishmael” and “Motion Sickness”

            “Ishmael” BORES into the brain. Good call on the lullaby! Great way to describe how he’s singing. Rhyming the word “sinister” in every way possible. The “mimicking gods” mantra. The fact he goes by Palaceer, but chooses to name the meaty center of the album after his real first name? LOTS going on in that song and a lyrics sheet would help me so much.

            But even though I like focusing in on “Ishmael” specifically, I’ve found it’s best to consider the suites the actual songs. “Ishmael” gets that really great intro with “Soundview” and then “…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel” (whatever the fuck THAT means) snaps back into the narrative of the album, which is taking shots at other rappers. Love the final line on Snorkel: “Wasn’t cool just cause you rich.”

    • Been listening all month. Had a copy that had second long pauses in between tracks that really fucked up the pacing. It’s necessary for those transitions to be seamless.

      The vinyl cuts up the album perfectly. Only 3 sides with the flips coming before “Lt. Major Winnings” and after “#CAKE” (based on my full-length runs, those were the spots I thought a flip would make the most sense).

      It’s DEFINITELY no “Black Up”. I went back and re-listened and there is something about that album that kicks you in the gut. “Lese Majesty” is wayyy more cerebral and subtle. The first three songs, “Ishmael” and “Motion Sickness” (ESPECIALLY “Motion Sickness”) are my favorites. Love the line, “So I asked the cat, why you do that? And the hustler say, ‘IT’S A HIGH CLIMB TO THE GALLOWS’” If that isn’t life philosophy, then I don’t know what is.

      I actually agree with a lot of what p4k’s review stated. The more I listened I realized it doesn’t leave the same impact as “Black Up”. It’s still cut from the same cloth. One thing I’ve noticed is that while “Lese Majesty” is longer than “Black Up”, it somehow feels shorter? Conversely, “Black Up” somehow feels longer than its runtime. Just an interesting thing I noticed about time and space in the world of Shabazz.

      Despite all of that, it’s still going to end up being one of my favorites of the year. There just isn’t anybody else doing what they’re doing. BUT, as far as hip-hop releases go, Run The Jewels now have a shot at being my favorite hip-hop album of the year. I was pulling for Shabazz, but whereas I feel they leaned into the brakes with “Lese Majesty”, I fully expect El & Mike to skullfuck the gas.

      • Totally agree with what you’ve said. The philosophies existing with Lese Majesty and Black Up are pretty much identical (rappers obsessed with the material and fame), and I feel like they went in this spacier direction just so they could make their invective clearer.

        I would say this record is, as a whole, as aggressive as Kendrick’s Control verse. Ish calls out the rappers pushing their luxurious lives, but also takes aim at those getting their “#cake” from places outside of material comforts just so they can say they did (“Dallas, Addis, Mogadishu”).

        Now if only I could derive some structure from that suite diagram…

    • 100% agree Lese Majesty is getting overlooked. Really, really great album front to back. It is a true album, and all the tracks come together to form an incredible whole. I have listened to it many times in the past week, and catch something new seemingly every time I listen. Right now my favorites are “Solemn Swears”/”Harem Aria,” but like Black Up it’s such a consistent album that I feel like my favorite song will change a lot.

    • I’m happy to see Lese Majesty getting love in these comments. It’s a strong contender for album of the year, hands down album of the week.

  7. My album of the week is Lese Majesty. If there’s a better release this week, please let me know because that new Shabazz Palaces album is simply a lesson to everybody about how to make good rap music in 2014.

  8. I’m really loving this record, but Tom’s suggestion that it’s the best thing Lewis has ever done gives me pause.

    Rilo Kiley had some pretty solid records… The Execution of All Things especially. That thing is a stone-cold classic in my opinion. It’s not as shimmery as The Voyager (Rilo Kiley didn’t shimmer that much until Under The Blacklight) – but every observation you made about Jenny’s lyrical prowess was already in full display on that record, right from the opening lines of “The Good That Won’t Come Out” and right on through to the (absolutely shredding in the old-school sense) “Spectacular Views”. And for my money, there is not a better lyrical/musical description of what depression feels like than “A Better Son/Daughter” – that song destroys me every time, even with its wind-up-toy-waltz conceit.

    The Voyager is still really really good. I’m just saying, you gotta go do some homework.

    • He actually said he wasn’t familiar with her other work, so his statement that this is her best was simply rock-crit hyperbole to justify this album’s feature here over Lese Majesty.

  9. “Lewis is 38, and maybe your experience is different, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met a childless 38-year-old woman who isn’t at least a little bit sad about her lack of kids.”

    UGH UGH UGH. I enjoyed the review, but I can’t let this brain-dead mansplaining pass without comment.

    I’m a 40-year-old woman, and my partner and I are childfree by choice, and have a huge circle of friends who are more than happy to have chosen not to have kids. Obviously, the stereotype you chose to parrot is very popular, but it’s just not true. If you’ve “never met” a happily child-free 38-year-old woman, I suggest you leave the house more often.

    • You literally did nothing contribute to this discussion about her music except use this as an opportunity to smugly self gloat about yourself and your inane yuppie friends. Maybe you should reproduce, then you maybe you would have actually contributed something to the world. Gotta love the internet

  10. “Slippery Slopes” sounds like Rilo Kiley’s “Under The Blacklight”

  11. I’m certainly glad to see this get AOTW, but I think you need to do some more homework before you anoint it “the best thing she’s ever done.” This feels like an achievement on par with her first (FANTASTIC) solo album Rabbit Fur Coat, the one with that Traveling Wilburys cover on it. You should really give it another listen.

  12. I lived in Echo Park in LA in the mid-oughts, and I had the biggest crush on Jenny Lewis. I think I might have seen her walking around the neighborhood once, but what was I gonna tell her? That I am a really big fan? I probably fantasized about giving her that baby she maybe wishes she had (it IS possible she is not referring to herself in the song).

    I also remember that Stereogum, in its year-end best album Gummy Awards poll in 2007, specifically berated people who voted for Under the Blacklight as choosing the wrong album. I totally was over the moon for that album, it sounded great as I jogged up Runyon Canyon and I thought it would be huge but I was wrong.

    Anyway, I will give anything Jenny Lewis does a shot. She’s still a huge indie rock crush for me and her songs actually sound lived-in and hard-won. I can relate to them. But I will be checking out Shabazz Palaces too, the next time I am up late alone at 3 a.m.

  13. “Lewis is 38, and maybe your experience is different, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met a childless 38-year-old woman who isn’t at least a little bit sad about her lack of kids.”

    It is too bad that in 2014 women are still viewed as actual, potential or failed mothers instead of autonomous beings with desires that may or may not have anything to do with offspring. Lame, Tom.

    Not Sad About Her Lack of Kids

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