In 2021 Jenny Lewis enrolled in an all-star songwriting workshop organised by her friend and sometime-collaborator Beck, who challenged her to write a track every day in her Tennessee home to a series of specific guidelines. Those efforts form the bulk of the ex-Rilo Kiley frontwoman’s fifth solo album ‘Joy’All’, a record chiefly influenced by how the pandemic-pause caused her to reflect on her life and various losses, before concluding that the pursuit of joy is paramount. She dons an outfit on its cover that was once owned by country music singer Skeeter Davis and the record cuts a similar Nashville sonic cloth, casting Lewis as a troubadour dispensing hard-won advice to bartenders in broken-down motels.
On her 2006 album ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’, Lewis sang: “And you will wake up 45” (‘Rise Up With Fists!!’). With that age fast-approaching, she found herself at 44 buying a Chevrolet and a cockerpoo as a panacea to any impending midlife crisis. The bluesy crawl of ‘Joy’All’s lead single ‘Puppy And A Truck’ begins with the arresting, witty couplet “My forties are kicking my ass and handing them to me in a margarita glass”, and unfolds as a tale of hitting the road to get over her infatuation with an older man and subsequent relationship with a “psychopath”. Packing in lyrics that gleam like rhinestones (“I need a dog that’s hypoallergenic / In a poodle milieu and photogenic”), there’s a clever ambiguity when she sings “I ain’t got no kids, I ain’t got no roots” that nails the specific feeling of how being childless can feel both liberating and horizon-shrinking.
Though it sounds comparatively more content than 2019’s ‘On The Line’ (which wrestled with the loss of her mother), sadness and joy are still intertwined throughout. Lewis’ evanescent melodies have always served as airbags cushioning the whiplash of her songs, and she knows the power of a wry one-liner to make melancholy more sumptuous. On the skeletal R&B of ‘Joy’All’s title track, her sugary-sweet vocals are paired with lyrics about an incident that happened at an after-school party that “almost destroyed” her. Opener ‘Psychos’’ Fleetwood Mac swoon, meanwhile, is juxtaposed with jagged modern lyrics inspired by online dating (“I’m not a psycho / I’m just trying to get laid”), while the breezy west coast pop of ‘Balcony’ masks an ode to a friend who took their own life during the pandemic.
Elsewhere, the twilight-soul of ‘Giddy Up’ deals with taking a chance on new love, while the goofy ‘Love Feel’ emerged out of Beck’s challenge to solder together as many clichés as possible into one track. Challenge accepted: “Ice cold Modelo / Tennessee Whiskey / Bourbon from Kentucky / Left my heart in Vette city / Black truck, Pontiac / Plymouth and Cadillac,” she lists like a flustered Family Fortunes contestant trying to complete a “Things You Associate With Country Music” board.
For an album that was constructed during COVID and involved getting a puppy to combat midlife malaise, Lewis has now found focus in the flux. ‘Joy’All’ proves that she’s maturing into one of pop’s foremost storytellers.
Release date: June 9
Record label: Blue Note/EMI Records