Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Voyager (Jenny Lewis, 2014)

Jenny Lewis - The Voyager Album Cover

With her 2014 solo album, The Voyager, Jenny Lewis, formerly the frontwoman of the now disbanded Rilo Kiley, proves an artist to grow into midlife with. The Voyager is also my pick for album of the year and maybe the best work Lewis has ever done.

The breezy sound of the production barely masks the gloomier contemplations contained in Lewis’s lyrics throughout The Voyager. Catchy lead single “Just One of the Guys,” produced by Beck, came packaged with a gender-bending music video that was much shared across the blogosphere.

Starring Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, and Brie Larson, the video’s images of the women portraying sleazily mustachioed caricatures of masculinity suggest a defiant satire of society’s expectations of women approaching a certain age. But, taking the track in the larger context of the album’s overall directness and introspectiveness, one wonders whether “Just One of the Guys” is truly ironic, mock serious, or rather something more honest and unpretentious after all, when Lewis sings, “When I look at myself, all I can see / I’m just another lady without a baby.”

It perhaps echoes the sentiments of “She’s Not Me,” wherein Lewis addresses a former lover, who has since moved on. The song’s title lyric would deny any envy on her part toward the woman who has taken her place, yet, as the story develops, it becomes quickly apparent that any lingering regret over the failed relationship is only the narrator’s own and not the former lover’s.

The song and the album relate to a generation of listeners who are just now seeing their friends and former lovers all at once moving on from them, getting married and having children. As Lewis lives with her choices, she does not submit to others’ standards, but neither is she immune to society’s glare, nor unaffected by her own observations of the joys filling others, as they live the lives she might have.

Lewis’s strength as a storyteller also shines on mid-album highlight “Late Bloomer,” a coming-of-age tale, wherein a restless teenage traveler meets a “big sister” character, with whom she falls into a passionate obsession resembling love. Yet, when the trip ends and they part ways, it is the narrator who fails to keep in touch. This ultimate lack of fulfillment speaks to the void of human existence—a persistent alienation, which we can only keep at bay through finite companionship (or resolve by starting families, so society would have us believe).

Even as Lewis looks back, she is finally resigned to the one-way momentum of life. While peers move forward with their lives, this is also, for many, the age at which one must begin to seriously confront the mortality of their parents’ generation, as Lewis did, when her father passed away during the period since her last album. Death and loss consequently figure into The Voyager’s existential themes, as we consider those departed to put into perspective where we ourselves are on this journey.

Thus does Lewis bookend her album with its most poignant tracks. Opener "Head Underwater" is a wrenching and incisive reflection on the lives she has led up to this point. Again, it balances an upbeat sound against lyrics that, on closer inspection, are quite dark and haunting. She is at a loss to discern from her own experiences where she was ever headed, but she is determined to march forward anyway. There is uncertainty but also wonder. Closing things on that note is the cosmic title track, "The Voyager," one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs of the year.

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Jenny Lewis will be playing in San Diego on Saturday, October 25, 2014 at the House of Blues.

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