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The Irregular Beat of Jenny Lewis’s Heart

The singer-songwriter has returned with a gorgeous, glam, and ever wise new album. At this stage, we don’t expect much less.

An illustration of Jenny Lewis playing a guitar in front of a mountain range Ringer illustration

In 1987, when Jenny Lewis was an 11-year-old child actress successful enough to have costarred in a sitcom with Lucille Ball, Hollywood celebrated its first century. Magazine covers feted the occasion, a TV special called Happy 100th Birthday, Hollywood was nationally broadcast, and the writer Eve Babitz was commissioned to pen an ode to the mythos of her hometown. “That strange mixture that’s always been a major part of Hollywood—self enchantment mingled with the ever-present fear of total disaster (earthquakes, fires, random murders)—lies beneath the physical reality of Hollywood,” she wrote in the essay “Self-Enchanted City.” What Babitz was celebrating, though, was Hollywood’s continued ability to rebrand such fates as passing time, old age, and even death. Its premiere cemetery, Hollywood Forever, has long been a tourist attraction. Sometimes bands play there, too.

“He took me to a graveyard, I thought he would kill me there,” Jenny Lewis sings on the first track of her magnificent new album, On the Line. This, too, turns out to be a romantic gesture: He kisses her instead. This song is called “Heads Gonna Roll,” and it moves with the gauzy, slow-motion swoon of a dream sequence. An echoing piano, canyon-sized percussion, sighing strings: The atmosphere is so thick you can almost smell it, like a sweet, heady perfume that’s got just a note of embalming fluid to it. “Maybe after all’s said and done, we’ll all be skulls,” Lewis, now 43, croons at the end of the chorus, delivering this observation with more of a shrug than a shudder.

Living and dying are never far from each other on this record, the first she’s made since watching her formerly estranged mother succumb to liver cancer in the fall of 2017. But On the Line is also an ode to sensual pleasures, and the way they can bloom into Technicolor when you remember that life is finite. “Ladies,” Lewis sings, leaning in toward the end of the song with the promise of a good time, “We’re gonna drink until they close.”

Lewis first made a name for herself as a musician in the early aughts, when she was the frontwoman of the indie band Rilo Kiley. But by then she had already lived about nine lives. Lewis’s parents performed as a touring lounge duo called Love’s Way; Jenny was born in Vegas but she and her sister spent their early years growing up in hotels. Her parents split when she was 3. She was “discovered” by a children’s talent agent around that time and cast in a Jell-O commercial when she was still in preschool. (“I think mostly because I was a redhead,” she later reflected.) By the time she was 5, her mother was financially dependent on her acting career. By 8, she realized that she was her family’s breadwinner—heavy stuff for a second grader. At 10 she booked Life With Lucy; at 11 she was on The Golden Girls. By 13, she costarred with Fred Savage in the video-game flick The Wizard. Somewhere along the way, she realized that her mother was addicted to heroin and using some of Jenny’s acting money to buy and sell drugs. She left her home—even though she technically owned it—when she was 16. Rilo Kiley, the band that she would form with her friend Blake Sennett when they both walked away from acting careers in their early 20s, was sometimes lumped in with the emo scene, largely populated by male musicians who sang about teenage heartbreak as though it were the end of the world. Wry and knowing, Jenny sang like she’d seen enough to know it wasn’t.

“We’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene,” Lewis sang with a wink on the title track of Rilo Kiley’s second album, The Execution of All Things. In 2002, Rilo Kiley had done just that, finding a fertile creative community with the Nebraska indie-powerhouse Saddle Creek Records, which was then releasing raw-edged, confessional music from artists like Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, and Cursive. It’s striking, and a testament to her sharp eye as a songwriter, how well some of Lewis’s observations have aged. Though it is almost 17 years old, Execution begins with skewering her peers (and herself) for their empty performative concern over environmental catastrophe:

Let’s get together and talk about the modern age
All of our friends were gathered there
With their pets, just talking shit
About how we’re all so upset about the disappearing ground
As we watch it melt

The early days of Rilo Kiley marked Lewis’s liberation. “I remember her finally having the burden lifted off her shoulders, that she didn’t need to support our mom anymore, and she didn’t need to be told what to do anymore—she was free,” Jenny’s sister Leslie told the writer Jenn Pelly in a recent Pitchfork interview. The parts she had been cast in, the characters she’d been paid to play, did not reflect her inner reality. Her lyrics did. “It was a big deal for her to walk away,” Leslie said. “But she had to do it. I think she didn’t want to be saying other people’s words anymore.”

Like a lot of people around my age, The Execution of All Things was the first Rilo Kiley album I heard, and loved. Lewis’s songs articulated the realities of depression, disillusionment, and occasional joy through an unapologetically feminine perspective. For better or worse, the early aughts were a fallow period for pop-cultural feminism … or even just mainstream images of cool women acting as agents of their own destinies. In my 20s, I felt cheated by this—how different my adolescence might have been had I grown up at a time when the internet made feminist ideas more easily accessible. Now, in my 30s, I’m glad I grew up when I did, at a time when I could not be easily confused into thinking that feminism was a consumer product to be marketed, bought, and sold rather than an ideological framework through which to view and question the world. The point is, it was a quiet time until Jenny Lewis and her barbed wisdom came along.

In revisiting Rilo Kiley’s albums over the past couple of weeks, I was surprised to remember that Execution was the only one released on Saddle Creek Records. Rilo Kiley were, so firmly in many people’s minds, “a Saddle Creek band.” This gave them a built-in audience, but it also garnered accusations of betrayal and “selling out” when they eventually signed to a larger label and cultivated a more hi-fi sound with their 2004 record More Adventurous, and especially the even sleeker 2007 release Under the Blacklight. The truth is easier to see in hindsight: Rilo Kiley were just visiting Omaha—they were always an L.A. band. Those polished later albums weren’t so much a deviation as a coming of age. DIY troubadour Conor Oberst may have encouraged Lewis’s solo career, but she has said she first wanted to become a songwriter when, at a Hollywood party when she was 10, Corey Haim slipped her a mixtape featuring Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys.

Perhaps not a hallmark of indie cred, whatever that means. But it’s a great, weird story. Over her past few solo albums, Jenny Lewis seems to have accepted the strange circumstance of her life, and run with it.

Again, she had to walk away to tune back into the voice in her head. Several years ago, Lewis split with her partner of 12 years, the musician Johnathan Rice. She’d eventually come to move back into the house that they shared in L.A., but for a while, she had to get out. “When you’re with someone that long, you share consciousness with them,” she said. “I didn’t finish any of my stories—Johnathan finished every story for me. So part of the reason I went to New York was to find my inner monologue. I wanted to know what that voice was.”

Clarion as ever, it turns out. On the Line is classic Jenny, but set in the sort of gilded, antique frame you might find in a West Coast thrift shop. These songs have a they-sure-don’t-make-’em-like-this-anymore quality, even when they’re referencing such modern inventions as Paxil, chemtrails, and Candy Crush. All throughout, there are the elegant flourishes of a seasoned and confident songwriter. “You think you’re going to heaven, and I am going to hell,” she sings during the first pre-chorus of “Heads Gonna Roll”; by the third verse, she’s filled in the scene enough to convincingly reverse the order of their destinations. One of the best songs, “Wasted Youth,” has a Carly Simon swagger about it, though a few more notches toward acidic on the pH scale. “I wasted my youth, on a poppy, just for fun, and everybody knows,” she croons, channeling both her mother’s negligence and her own pursuit of a good time, tacking on a few eerie do-do-do-do-dos just for fun. You thought “You’re So Vain” was juicy because it’s about a celebrity? Imagine if Carly Simon wrote it about her mother!

What kills me is that “and everybody knows.” Lewis has an acute sense of what other people see, what they’re missing, and what decoys might draw their attention. (If the cover of On the Line could talk, it would say, in Erin Brockovich voice, “They’re called boobs, Ed.”) When I wrote an essay a few years ago reconsidering Lewis and the internet aesthetic of feminine sadness, I noted that her songs had “above all things an awareness of being looked at.” She wasn’t necessarily courting it on purpose, it’s just that her early experience as an actress gave her a feminine wisdom beyond her years, an ability to pivot between subject and object. This doesn’t always have to be a drag, though. Lewis knew she was going to be looked at anyway, so she might as well take control of that image, see it as a space of possibility, and maybe even a chance to complicate some stereotypes head-on. “Over the years I’ve become more comfortable in my skin,” she said in that recent Pitchfork profile. “It’s funny to feel good in your skin when it’s not quite as tight as it used to be.”

An Alternative View Of The 2015 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1
Jenny Lewis in 2015
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

The music’s got a surface sheen, too. This record sounds like dream, idiosyncratically but immaculately produced, full of the sorts of little details that make a song feel crafted rather than just made: The deep breath every single instrument takes before the last chorus on “Dogwood,” that little blip of Auto-Tune left in “Little White Dove,” the malfunctioning-carousel pace of “Taffy.” Lewis coproduced and mixed some of it herself, along with contributions from Beck, Don Was, and (before accounts of his sexual misconduct surfaced) Ryan Adams. You almost wish there were a bad song so you could conveniently blame that one on Ryan Adams and be done with it, but as in the moral universe of Jenny Lewis’s songs, things are never that easy. “The allegations are so serious and shocking and really fucked up,” she said recently. “I hate that he’s on this album, but you can’t rewrite how things went.” Still, there are no cowriters credited on On the Line, and from a songwriting perspective that makes it her most independent project since her debut solo album Rabbit Fur Coat. “With the songs I’ve cowritten, it’s almost as if there’s a trimming of the emotional, rambling, poetic hysteria,” she said, “which is where I live when I’m writing by myself.”

Rambling, poetic hysteria, sure—but she knows when to end things. The finale, the bouncy “Rabbit Hole,” is a song even a therapist could love: “I’m not gonna go down the rabbit hole with you again,” Lewis sings with the convincing optimism of self-preservation. It might be a false promise, but it’s one worth believing in, born from the kind of self-awareness that comes with maturity. On the Line is the record that finally corrects the Jenny Lewis myth, that clicks her into the proper context. Lewis was always an inhabitant of an L.A. tradition, that weird mixture of fatalism and hedonism that existed before she was born. Her kindred spirits were never the emo boys wailing their throats sore. She belongs instead with a faster crowd: Eve Babitz, Carrie Fisher, Elton John in a glittery Dodgers uniform, feather boas, ruby slippers, variety shows, cemetery kitsch, and all the ladies of the canyon. She would like someone to hold her when she’s sad, yes, but even the image she uses to evoke that need is pure L.A.: “Can you be my puzzle piece? When I cry like Meryl Streep?”

And then there’s that title track, one of the best things she’s ever done. It’s confectionary. Like one of those little, intricately decorated cakes so sweet that biting into it causes a physical ache. And yet, like all these other compositions, the song feels durable, engineered to withstand the next earthquake. “Listen to my heart beating,” she sings, repeating the request a few times. But she’s pleading more than she needs to. If there’s one sound that never gets old, it’s the irregular beat of Jenny Lewis’s heart.