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.
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.
• PARTYNEXTDOOR’s Two EP.