Jenny Lewis was tired of being a star. By the time her band Rilo Kiley put out their proper debut album, Take Offs And Landings, the former child actor — known for roles like Lucille Ball’s granddaughter in a short-lived I Love Lucy spinoff and the Nintendo-focused road-trip adventure The Wizard — had all but formally retired from the screen. A 1992 LA Times profile declared her “a teenage actress with three mortgages,” conveniently glossing over the fact that, unbeknownst to Lewis at the time, a chunk of her acting money had been funding her mother’s lifelong heroin addiction. Deceived and morally disoriented, Lewis’ mental state no longer lent itself to portraying her typical chipper characters on screen. Jenny Lewis, the actor, had to be 100% composed at all times. For Jenny Lewis, the musician, things were allowed to get a little messier.
Take Offs And Landings arrived 20 years ago this week on the vanity label Rilo Records. Shortly thereafter, it was reissued by Barsuk, the Seattle label who would eventually become known as the home of Death Cab For Cutie’s early releases. From the start, Rilo Kiley’s default fan base seemed to be those already acquainted with similarly sullen groups like Death Cab and Bright Eyes, who at the turn of the century were pretty unanimously dubbed magnates of emo music. But even today, Rilo Kiley are often left out of emo consideration, despite the often macabre nature of Lewis’ lyrics. “It must be nice to finish when you’re dead,” she coos on “Pictures Of Success,” a line that would feel right in place on The Photo Album or Fevers And Mirrors. It should be indisputable that Rilo Kiley’s frequent omission from emo’s umbrella is at least in part due to the fact that they’d put a woman front and center; if you were born around the early to mid-’90s, Lewis was almost certainly one of the first women you saw fronting an otherwise all-dude band, toe-to-toe with the Ben Gibbards and the Conor Obersts. Even after Lewis went on to join Gibbard in the Postal Service, critics hesitated to admit that at her best, she could eclipse her male peers.
But however often Take Offs And Landings was sidelined from the emo canon, it didn’t take long to reach commercial success. In a contentious move that ultimately paid off in terms of wider recognition, Rilo Kiley landed a slew of soundtrack placements around the time of Take Offs And Landings, syncs in massively popular teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But this, naturally, only further repelled critics and Converse-wearing snobs, who were quick to dismiss Rilo Kiley as sellouts, as if a Blink-182 tune hadn’t been featured in American Pie just a couple of years prior.
But Rilo Kiley’s naysayers were almost always outnumbered, and the group thankfully reached the right crowd. They made fans out of likeminded non-male bandleaders of the future, like Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield, Charly Bliss’ Eva Hendricks (a future Barsuk signee), and Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan. “It was so huge to see a woman on stage holding a guitar, being powerful but still very feminine,” Crutchfield told Pitchfork in 2019. “That was my first foray into seeing that as a possibility for myself.” The way millennials have reminisced about Rilo Kiley’s personal impact often mirrors the language Generation X has used to describe the riot grrrl movement only a decade before. If Kathleen Hanna’s goal was to tell women in her crowds that their anger was justified, Lewis represented the opposing side of the same coin via Rilo Kiley: It’s OK to be unabashedly and emphatically sad.
And what an unabashedly, emphatically sad record Take Offs And Landings was. “How long will we last before we go insane?” Lewis begs on “We’ll Never Sleep (God Knows We’ll Try),” a sauntering acoustic number about a ticking-time-bomb romance. On the jangly opener “Go Ahead,” she bids her beau adieu through self-pitying tears: “If you want to find somebody else that’s better, go ahead.” And “Pictures Of Success” bears some of the most heartbreaking lines Lewis and co-lyricist/guitarist Blake Sennett ever put to tape: “I’m a modern girl, but I fold in half so easily/ When I put myself in the picture of success.” It’s a guttural introspection coming from a woman who, at the time, likely couldn’t fathom the fact that her career was just on the precipice of a rebirth.
While Rilo Kiley were still zeroing in on their sound in 2001, it’s a treat to hear them start to get there on Take Offs And Landings. The handful of Sennett-led tracks like “August” and “Small Figures In A Vast Expanse” evoke Figure 8-era Elliott Smith, similarly juxtaposing hushed, morose vocals over pseudo-uplifting instrumentals. The rousing “Always” hears Lewis holler over a not-so-subtle synth line, while the jittery guitar riffs of “Wires And Waves” almost feel indebted to the stripped-back math rock pioneered by American Football. Elsewhere, the album’s most saccharine moments draw clear comparisons to early twee pop, another famously hit-or-miss subgenre. In retrospect, it makes sense why a seemingly inconsistent record like Take Offs And Landings would receive mixed reviews upon its release, but the melting pot of influences should be taken as a testimonial to Lewis and Sennett’s proficiency in indie rock. Songs like “Pictures Of Success” and “Science Vs. Romance” were not only commercially successful, they stand among the greatest songs in the band’s catalog.
Even after Rilo Kiley trickled into the mainstream, the band’s days were numbered. Lewis was particular and shamelessly strong-willed. Sennett originally asked her to join the band as a background vocalist, an offer she could hardly believe he’d proposed in earnest. Lewis and Sennett also dated in the band’s early years, and though the pair remain amicable these days (they briefly reunited during a 2015 Coachella appearance and again this year for Linda Perry’s Rock-N-Relief livestream), they often butted heads behind the scenes.
“There’s definitely been a power struggle between Blake and Jenny,” their go-to producer Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes told Spin in 2007, while Rilo Kiley were promoting their fourth and final album, Under The Blacklight. The fact that Lewis was building her own solo career on the side surely didn’t calm personal tensions or put to rest speculations of an impending breakup, either. As soon as Rilo Kiley finished touring Under The Blacklight, Sennett left the band. Seven years later, Lewis confirmed the long-running assumption that Rilo Kiley had disbanded for good.
Take Offs And Landings isn’t the best album Rilo Kiley ever made. They went grander and deeper on its follow-up, 2002’s The Execution Of All Things, and eventually landed a pop crossover of sorts with their 2004 major-label debut, More Adventurous. Since their breakup, Lewis’ solid output as a solo rock artist has generated reappraisals of Rilo Kiley, spurring retrospective conversations about the impact the band’s music made on girls and young women in the 2000s.
By the time Rilo Kiley’s music came to me as a Tumblr-era tween floundering through real-world distress for the first time, the band had already gone silent. In hindsight, however, I feel thankful that I first heard Take Offs And Landings a few years after its release. I could listen to Lewis mull about death with the understanding that she would evolve to self-assuredly dismiss an ex on 2007’s “Silver Lining”: “I’m your silver lining/ Hooray, hooray/ But now I’m gold.” If she could make it through her strife and end up stronger in spite of it — going so far as to deem herself gold — then I suppose I could, too.