Sometimes when you’re on, you’re really fucking on.
Until The Execution Of All Things, which came out 20 years ago this weekend, Rilo Kiley hadn’t totally figured out the art of the full-length album. Their self-titled debut, also known as The Initial Friend EP, was released in a few different iterations during their early years as a band — it was finally properly reissued in 2020. It was more a collection of songs, albeit some pretty great ones like “The Frug” and “Glendora,” but there was no overarching sentiment behind them. And while Take Offs And Landings is more fully-baked, there are some evident growing pains in what would turn out to be a pretty definitive document nonetheless.
But, oh boy, were Rilo Kiley firing on all cylinders for The Execution Of All Things. The band had solidified into a lineup that included (of course) longtime friends and sometimes lovers Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, but also bassist Pierre de Reeder and drummer Jason Boesel, who joined in 2001 and would remain until their breakup. “It’s always the four of us,” Lewis said in an interview around this time. “The four of us in the van or the four of us in a motel room or the four of us spending the night on someone’s floor.”
The band was becoming more popular, in part thanks to a number of well-placed syncs in movies and television shows. They were also on the road a lot. “I’m more prolific when I’m in motion,” Lewis said. “I’ve written a lot in truly happy times and written a lot in bouts of depression, but for me, it’s input that sparks ideas and feelings, so touring for me is the best possible time because you get to see so much and meet so many people.”
It was during one of their tours in support of Take Offs that the pieces of Execution started to fall into place. Rilo Kiley met Cursive’s Tim Kasher, then on tour with his side project the Good Life, while playing a show in San Francisco. The band tagged along with Kasher back to his Nebraska stomping grounds, and he gave them a tour of Presto! Recording Studios, where brothers Mike and A.J. Mogis were already well on their way to establishing both Omaha and Saddle Creek Records as a driving force in early ’00s indie rock.
“We had bought a copy of Bright Eyes’ Fevers And Mirrors a year before, so we were already fans of the music,” Lewis noted in a 2002 interview. Mike Mogis — who was essential in developing Bright Eyes’ expansive, ramshackle sound — produced The Execution Of All Things. It was the first time that Rilo Kiley had recorded in a proper studio. “I think we tried to create an album that reflected our live sound a little more,” Lewis noted. “With Take Offs And Landings — I think because we recorded it at home and we were learning how to record and also perform — it didn’t necessarily reflect how we play live. I think this one does a little better. If you come out to see us, we rock a little bit.” They made The Execution Of All Things over a few weeks in March of 2002 — Lewis once said being in that studio “put us in a perpetual state of longing … the performances were born out of a drunken, freezing experience.”
Rilo Kiley are intrinsically a Los Angeles band — anchored by two child stars, no less — but they usually had one foot out the door of their hometown and into cooler climes. With Take Offs, they found kindred spirits in the Seattle scene. Though self-recorded in California, it found them adopting some of the dry, mathy sounds of the Pacific Northwest, and it was eventually put out through Death Cab For Cutie incubator Barsuk Records. On Execution, they set their sights on Nebraska. (Or as Lewis wryly puts it on the album’s title track: “We’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene.”) They channeled some of the same energy that Conor Oberst did on his contemporaneous albums — especially Lifted…, which came out a month before this — and they tapped many of the same people to work with them.
But despite how quickly they adapted to new environments, or maybe because of it, Rilo Kiley were always distinct from the company that they kept. Lewis tended to stick out from the crowd, both by virtue of being one of the few women in a scene dominated by men and because she has an undeniable star quality, a magnetic pull that comes through on all of the band’s songs. And the songs on The Execution Of All Things are among Rilo Kiley’s very best.
Let’s start with “A Better Son/Daughter,” the sort of towering, monumental achievement that makes even Anne Hathaway sound like a goofy music writer. “[Her music] just goes bone-deep, you know?” the Oscar-winning actress gushed to The Washington Post in 2015. “And Jenny … I just feel like she’s a massively gifted poet with a killer voice and she’s a really talented musician. She’s documenting her life as a human being, she’s interpreting it and sharing that with us and I just — there are so many truth bombs in her songs where you go, ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about.'”
“A Better Son/Daughter” is a perfect example of the new heights that Rilo Kiley were scaling on this album. It starts with a militaristic patter that explodes into a rousing blast of horns and booming drums. All the instruments serve to accentuate Lewis’ paralyzing fear of what she can’t control, quiet and tentative until she comes around to a mantra that tries to manifest a positive attitude out of the ether; in response, Sennett’s guitar breaks out into a hopeful, sky-scraping sound. Like many of her deeply interconnected lyrics, Lewis is worth quoting in full here:
But you’ll fight and you’ll make it through
You’ll fake it if you have to
And you’ll show up for work with a smile
You’ll be better and you’ll be smarter and more grown up
And a better daughter or son
And a real good friend
You’ll be awake, you’ll be alert
You’ll be positive though it hurts
And you’ll laugh and embrace all your friends
You’ll be a real good listener
You’ll be honest, you’ll be brave
You’ll be handsome and you’ll be beautiful
You’ll be happy!
She covers similar emotional terrain on album opener “The Good That Won’t Come Out,” which feels like it takes place at a cosmopolitan party where everyone is fretting about global warming and drinking too much red wine. On this one, Lewis sounds exposed, a live-wire intimacy that renders itself in pedal steel and a needling guitar line that provides the song’s arrhythmic heartbeat. She worries that her vulnerability will be mistaken for weakness, that she’s running out of time to be honest with herself and everyone around her. “It’s all the good that won’t come out of me/ And how eventually my mouth will just turn to dust/ If I don’t tell you quick/ Standing here on this frozen lake,” she sings at the song’s conclusion, which ends on another crescendo: a raucous, gleefully anxious burst of tambourines and blown-out drums.
There are a lot of moments on The Execution Of All Things that sound like that: a simmering tension that gives way to beautiful, chaotic release. The album is filled with strings, whirring synthesizers, picked-at and cascading guitars. Being in a proper studio for the first time gave Rilo Kiley confidence. Recording with Mogis also certainly helped — they worked with him again on their 2004 follow-up More Adventurous (though their partnership with Saddle Creek wouldn’t survive the next transition). They complement each other, building on the sometimes theatrical and sometimes twee instrumentation that Rilo Kiley had been trading in since the beginning and pushing it even further. The widescreen lens allowed both more space for Lewis’ lyrics, which got increasingly compelling and precise, and Sennett’s subtly intricate guitar parts, which often erupted into crackling layers of noise.
The Execution Of All Things is the most interconnected of Rilo Kiley’s albums. All the songs feel like they’re in conversation with one another — each of them devastatingly sad and exceedingly invigorating at the same time. Lewis sings a lot about nature and how it’s ever-changing; she sings about wars, both internal and external; she sings about wanting to expect the best of everyone and wanting the best for herself. “There’s friendly people in cities too/ Just ask them where they are going to,” goes a memorable line from “Capturing Moods.” “There’s life and work/ Up where the clouds meet the snow.”
Interspersed throughout the album are snippets of a music box-esque song called “And That’s The Way That I Choose To Remember It,” where Lewis reflects on the divorce of her parents, which happened when she was just three years old. It’s about the selective power of recollection, how time tends to compress memories into a singular fleeting feeling. “Now, some days, they last longer than others,” she sings on “With Arms Outstretched.” “But this day by the lake went too fast.”
“We have always tried to tell a story,” Lewis explained in an interview. “A lot of our favorite bands come from a strong lyrical background. Being on a label like Saddle Creek pushes us to want to tell more complete stories. I think we strive to do that. [I write about] all of the things that confuse me the most in my life: love, relationships, family, depression, and hope. All the things that seem invincible but aren’t. I want to take all of the bad things in life and transform them into something positive.”
For as emotionally raw as Rilo Kiley’s songs can be, if there’s one thing to be taken away from The Execution Of All Things, it’s perseverance. The songs sound joyous, in spite and because of all the self-doubt and anxieties that are twisted up in them. They are, at the end of the day, hopelessly optimistic. As Lewis sings on the album’s driving, magnificent closer “Spectacular Views”:
You never knew why you felt so good
In the strangest of places
Like in waiting rooms
Or long lines that made you late
Or mall parking lots on holidays
There are no bad words
For the coast today
When we hold our breath
Until nothing’s left
It all starts to fade
See the stars
From where the birds make their homes
Staring back at us
Indifferent but distanced perfectly
The Execution Of All Things — it’s so fucking beautiful.