Jenny Lewis has always been a storyteller, first and foremost. She captures people and places – out of control, out of place and searching for answers and solutions – permanent, temporary, or for one night only. Yet she has always had a remarkable buffering ability with the sweet and the light. In her happiest moments, you search for the storm on the horizon. And in the throes of pity and self-doubt, it is the inflected sadness of her voice clashing against the spirit of her character that provides the will to hurtle on and stand up again. On the Line – Lewis’ fourth album – is another Technicolor collection of tales that straddle the twin facades of Hollywood - the false glamour, the grime and the steps and stages in between. It’s an album filled with lost moments, faded romances and things that could otherwise have been, but the key to it all is that Lewis is in control throughout. Everything is on her terms and unreliable narrator or otherwise, she has never sounded purer or more steadfast.
The best moments of On the Line are found within the sweet confessionalism of these tales – cinematic and vivid. Opener ‘Heads Gonna Roll’ is a sweeping and grandiose journey of bitter reflection and hedonistic compensation with memories of a former lover still imprinted into the back of her mind. It’s all gorgeous Lennon-piano (and with a notable guest spot from Ringo Starr to drive the point home) draped in strings that swing between dizzy swoops of emotion and pizzicato uncertainty and doubt. ‘Little White Dove’ is a delectably slinky and seductively sparse bass-lead groove and the melodrama of ‘Red Bull and Hennessey’ is intoxicating in deftly portraying its clash between the Venn diagram of desire, frustration and emotion. In songs such as this that require a delicate balance between seductiveness and vulnerability, there are few better than Jenny Lewis.
The suburban claustrophobia of ‘Hollywood Lawn’ eventually breaks - fracturing the fragile mirror between the exterior glamour and the underpinning decay of the city – wishing for an escape if only she could “click my ruby slippers”. It’s like an unexpected thunderstorm that leaves the air sweeter and the view clearer. And the protagonist of ‘Party Clown’ is drawn from the same sources – excoriating memories of sordid encounters in cars, scorpions and Meryl Streep’s tears being suddenly lifted by the promise of love to find the missing puzzle-piece that has eluded for so long. There’s enough playfulness in the songs to paint clear water between Lewis’s own experience and the tales she tells but there’s clearly enough of her heart and soul in the tracks to make it stick. You believe in her characters, you feel their pain, you wait for the moment when it will either fall apart or come together. Intelligently, Lewis never offers you the answer but leaves you to make up your own endings.
At the heart of the record however, is the astonishing ‘Wasted Youth’. It steadily climbs from simple piano lines into a kaleidoscopic, shuffling verse and ultimately into a crescendo of a chorus, overwhelming everything in its path. Arpeggios build upon each other, bass lines swoop and dive between the bars and towering force of Lewis’s stunning melody genuinely takes your breath away. It is a moment of crystalline, brilliant pop magnificence and without doubt the most beautiful thing she has put her voice to since 2004’s ‘Portions for Foxes’. Amongst lyrics of sorrowful defeat and cold references to empty bourbon bottles, “wasting my youth on a poppy” and in a place where where “everybody knows we’re in trouble” and where “the cookie crumbles into dust”, the sheer force and beauty of the song drags you up from the dirt. It is something quite wonderful to behold.
There are some missteps along the way. ‘Taffy’ is gorgeous but ultimately gets too tied-up in trying to create an atmosphere of melancholy and intimate imagery without fully skewering the sense of loss at its heart. And ‘Dogtooth’ suffers from similar issues – being confessional without truly confessing. But these are minor issues in a record that otherwise rarely puts a foot wrong, especially in its closing stretch when the sweet West-Coast pop of the title track and the lilting and deftly-executed kiss-off ‘Rabbit Hole’ bring the album home in a swirl of colour and charm. It’s hugely telling that on an album that features guest turns from the likes of Ringo as well as Beck and Ryan Adams, the simple truth is that you’re not particularly interested in them. On the Line is all about Jenny Lewis. She is older, somewhat more sorrowful and her voice is beginning to mature into a bourbon-cask of love and loss. But there are few who can capture your heart – the dark and the light - like she can. In a career that has rarely missed a beat in 20 years, On the Line is yet another beautifully-realised and impeccably-delivered effort from a songwriter who revels and beguiles us from floorboards and pavements that few other songwriters would dream to tread.