Ryan Adams helps out on an underwhelming outing
Jenny Lewis’ third solo album changed course dramatically when Ryan Adams got his hands on it. Lewis had just finished singing on The Postal Service’s 2013 reunion tour when she tweeted Adams asking if she could record ‘The Voyager’ in his Pax-Am studio. He agreed, as long as Lewis recorded his way: in straight takes, never listening back to a day’s work. With his partner Mike Viola, they rewrote songs Lewis had spent five years agonising over during bouts of insomnia that lasted as long as five days. Adams changed vocal keys, rearranged parts and switched lyrics and titles to make them more direct.
The resulting album – helmed by Adams and featuring further collaborations with Beck and Johnathan Rice, Lewis’ boyfriend and fellow Jenny And Johnny member – explores death, depression and relationship struggles so jauntily that her heartbreak is almost masked. Lewis has form hiding her struggles with a smile; a re-read of Rilo Kiley’s tongue-in-cheek album sleeves, 2001’s ‘Take Offs And Landings’ in particular, proves that.
But Lewis, now 38, can no longer hide behind an indie band. Her angst is far more pronounced now, and her attempts to soften the blows feel jarring. On ‘Love U Forever’ – the title changed by Adams from the original ‘Love Him Forever’ – she’s reminiscing about meeting a man when they were “kids” wearing peace signs in “the daisy age”. With electric riffs and shimmering harmonies, its swoon of a chorus is one of the album’s best moments, but it comes with an undercurrent of loss. The same story appears elsewhere: confessions of “losing my mind” on the title track; of taking drugs and tripping in the bath on ‘Head Underwater’; of drifting apart from friends on the Beck-produced, ’60s-tinged ‘Just One Of The Guys’.
Even when Lewis documents the death of her estranged father on ‘You Can’t Outrun ’Em’, she hides the sadness behind a sunny West Coast number, sung with a country lilt over steel strings.
Ultimately, the pop sheen Adams applies on ‘The Voyager’ is at odds with Lewis’ songs. By always opting for directness, he’s failed to let her do justice, musically, to the darkness of her inspiration.