I bought Rilo Kiley’s second album The Execution of All Things at an FYE on my first trip to New York City from my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. I was 14 years old. The album played in my headphones as I rode in buses and taxis around Manhattan, past the Chelsea Hotel and Columbus Circle and the Guggenheim. At that vulnerable age I had been having a hard time wrapping my mind around the quiet submission of self that comes in early high school. I discovered Bikini Kill and started appreciating Aretha Franklin simultaneously. I obsessively downloaded music on whatever pirating program was still around at the time. I discovered the indie-rock of the tender early 2000s and the earlier indie-rock that had inspired it. It wasn’t until I heard Rilo Kiley on the bus in Manhattan that I knew that I really wanted to make music myself.
The musical theater-like vocal glory and the airtight incisiveness of the lyrics of that album, along with punk rock’s influence on indie music in general, created a whirlwind of inspiration for me as a young songwriter. I felt a massive surge of enthusiasm and revelation that I think musicians and music lovers only get to feel a few times in their entire lives. It felt like Jenny Lewis had curated this experience for me personally. When I saw Rilo Kiley play Birmingham a few years later, tears filled my eyes as Lewis took the stage and played the first few notes of “It’s a Hit.”
Throughout those ingenuous high school years and into my more guarded 20s I have followed her career faithfully. When her first solo album Rabbit Fur Coat was released I played it religiously and drove to Atlanta to see her perform a month later. When what would turn out to be the final Rilo Kiley album Under the Blacklight came out in 2007, I blared it in the van as I drove to LA for the first time. When Lewis’ 2008 Acid Tongue was released I downloaded a leaked copy and drove around Tuscaloosa, smoking cigarettes while it played through twice. All of these records are challenging and firmly committed to a unique aesthetic, but to me, that’s what truly great and timeless artists thrive on: the ability to be subversive while never losing or diluting what the audience loved about them in the first place.
I had the surreal pleasure of getting to play two shows with Jenny Lewis earlier this year. As excited as I was to see her play all the songs I loved, I really just hoped it meant that she would be releasing new music some time soon. My hope was wonderfully satisfied. Both nights I watched in awe as she played, I later learned, almost every song on her upcoming album The Voyager.
The album begins with “Head Under Water” as Jenny sings, “I’m not the same woman that you are used to.” The song describes the rather universal feeling of absence in moments of confusion and suffering. She sings these personal experiences with a juxtaposed vulnerability and courage that immediately struck me as something fresh, or at least refurbished, for her. Jenny has worn a few different hats as a lyricist. Most of her recent material prior to The Voyager has been narrative, Jenny poetically acting as narrator or inserting herself into a story. I quickly realized that “Head Under Water” revisits a more direct and personal approach to writing lyrics that we haven’t seen from her in quite a while.
The album continues into “She’s Not Me,” a song about sentimental lost love and that feeling of “heard she’s having your baby.” It radiates a combination of remorse and bitterness that is so imperfect and candid. It’s free of inhibition and thus sort of buoyant. That candor really sums up the tone of the album. It feels like someone you already liked is being really sincere and letting you in on their worldview in a way they never have before.
Another remarkable thing about this album is how it converges a fierce Rolodex of influences into a sound that is comprehensive and pure pop. Over the years Jenny has tapped into many different musical enclaves. Rabbit Fur Coat leaned into the Opry-folk moments Rilo Kiley had toyed with in their earlier albums; Under the Blacklight reclaimed something that has forever seemed uncool (disco) and made it green and lively; Acid Tongue dabbled in soft-psychedelic recollection that will forever be alluring and fashionable. While all of those choices were interesting and enjoyable, it’s really refreshing to hear a straightforward pop album from Jenny Lewis. It combines all the things we love about her music and boils it down into a concentrate of what we love most. Her voice, her lyrics and her impeccable melodies really stand on their own in The Voyager.
In this era of indie music, and music in general, long-term success and recognition is even more rarely attained than it ever was; many artists are only a flash in the pan. Some artists who have a long run of loyal fans and relative success will, in their later work, clumsily look to passing trends that will eventually date their music, so it’s so incredibly restorative for me to know, as a young musician, that some people can just make the records they want to make without taking cues from the fleeting and the superficial. Everything Jenny Lewis has made over the years has been inventive. It’s challenged her audience while maintaining her compelling and specific voice. And now she’s made another album that makes me excited to be an artist and proud to be a fan.