There’s always been a cinematic quality to Jenny Lewis’ storytelling, and in painting pain, heartbreak, infatuation and hedonistic escape in bright brushstrokes, her fourth solo album ‘On the Line’ shimmers like a gaudy neon sign marking the entrance to a dive bar. Beneath the hulking great pop songs, however (and make no mistake, this is a record of wall-to-wall melodic gold), there’s a underlying darkness. Like the gritty enclaves of shadow that lurk behind the artifice of California – the grimy alleyways skirting casinos and bars, the endless and pursuit of that non-existent American dream – the album’s shimmering sonic shell stands in contrast to the raw lyrical honesty within.
Jenny Lewis grew up in Las Vegas, where her parents had their own Sonny and Cher tribute act together. Her dad, who passed away in 2010, left their family home when she was three years old. Her mum worked as a waitress, and it was hard for the family make ends meet, until Lewis was plucked out of her pre-school by an acting agent. She became a child star, acting in various TV commercials, shows and films as a kid. Later, Lewis and her late mother – who struggled with heroin addiction throughout her lifetime – became estranged for over 20 years, only reuniting when she was dying from liver cancer.
If Lewis’ previous album ‘The Voyager’ was an exploration of her fractured relationship with her father, ‘On the Line’ is surely dedicated to growing closer to her mother again. On ‘Little White Dove’, we find Lewis and her mother in hospital together; sterile floor numbers making way for a surreal, heavenly fleet of angelic doctors. ‘Wasted Youth’, meanwhile, masks bitter regret beneath peppy, plunking piano. “I wasted my youth on a poppy,” lulls a chipper Lewis, perhaps alluding to her mother’s opiate addiction. “Doo-doo doo-doo doo,” she lulls flippantly, “just for fun”.
‘On the Line’ frequently throws up surprises. Taking the piss out of the West Coast’s reoccupation with horoscopes as she scours the house for Bourbon, Lewis taps into a droll and dark humour. Amid the sadness of ‘Party Clown’, Lewis invokes a surprising source of metaphor: “When I cry like Meryl Streep, when I crack my head wide open, I wanna be next to you,” she sings. And ‘Heads Gonna Roll’ ends on a particularly searing couplet: “A little bit of hooking up is good for the soul / Heads gonna roll”.
Featuring contributions from The Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr, frequent collaborator Beck, Benmont Tench (formerly Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist) producer Don Was and superstar session drummer Jim Keltner, ‘On the Line’ is precise and clearly produced; each sweeping hum of orchestral arrangement waltzes into view. Much of this production came from Ryan Adams, and since learning of the serious abuse allegations against Adams emerged after ‘On The Line’ was complete, Jenny Lewis issued a statement in support of the women who spoke out against him.
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‘On the Line’ toes many tightropes. Hedonism is liable to osmose its way into escapism at any cost. Comic relief is a close bedfellow of total desperation; the darkest, bleakest moments in life can often arrive coupled with a strange kind of laughter. On her fourth solo record, Jenny Lewis skewers all of these tensions with astonishing ease. It’s up there with her greatest work to date.