Review Summary: A rather lacklustre yet overall beautiful execution.
The first time I knew the name Jenny Lewis
, is neither from her time in the indie pop band Rilo Kiley
, nor her time as a solo artist, but her time as a guest star in a classic episode of the revered sitcom The Golden Girls
, where the then-child starlet played the bratty Sunshine Cadet trooper, Daisy. In the now-classic episode “Old Friends”, when the late Rue McClanahan’s character, Blanche, accidentally gave Daisy a teddy bear, which is belonged to and cherished by Betty White’s character Rose, she decided to get the teddy back from the youngster after Rose was upset about the “disappearance” of her beloved friend, only to find that Daisy held the teddy bear for ransoms. Looking at Lewis as the greedy little brat in the sitcom and then listen to her crystalline voice in her music and watch her have a healthy life, it’s hard to believe that Lewis skipped through every obstacle that a child star would face and have a relatively smoother run than other child stars, as I’ve seen too many of child stars like her went down the wrong path, let alone being in an indie pop band that experienced some mainstream success and considerable amount of critical praise and have an even more successful solo career, as Lewis herself notched a Top Ten album in America with the refined The Voyager
. However, it would take her four years to follow up the album with On The Line
, a more polished effort compared to the already poppy predecessor, since she experienced a breakup with her longtime partner and the death of her estranged mother, as well as the development of a new project. The result? Well, a charming album that many of her old fans would resonate, but may confuse many potential fans.
For starters, some of the album is riddled with songwriting that is either vague or just redundant that makes the rather plain songwriting in Rilo Kiley’s pop detour Under The Blacklight
a strong effort, which is not surprising given that she wrote all the lyrics by herself and that there is no “second eye” to beef up the lyrics. From the clichéd breakup closer “Rabbit Hole”, the redundant chorus of “Party Clown” to utter nonsense that is “Hollywood Lawn” and the bland hooks-laden in the bewildering “Do Si Do”, many of this record is unfortunately plagued by either boring moments or head-shaking blunders. Although it is pretty reasonable for such inconsistency, since she wrote the entire album at the wake of the aforementioned tragedies, I often felt that she was too affected by those events that it disrupts her songwriting ability. As a result, what I was listening was perhaps the most confounding album in her clarified catalog.
Fortunately, most of the albums are highlights that keeps the album from being a plain pop dud, as they showcased Lewis’ songwriting at its best. Just take the gorgeously witty breakup song “Red Bull and Hennessy”, as Lewis taunted her egotistical former lover to come to get her, and she asked, “Don’t you wanna try and devour the moon？”, blending the romantic pop-rock drama in Rumours
with Liz Phair
-like dry lyrics that is akin to the latter’s “6’ 1””. Other great moments are also live up to the standards as well: the alt-country-esque “Heads Gonna Roll” is a dreamy yet caustic kiss off to her toxic relationship, as Lewis spits on distanced relationship (“Since I haven't talked to you, I dream about your baby blues and wonder why you stopped getting high”) and constant arguments(“And we disagreed about everything, from Elliott Smith to Grenadine”); the elegant lament that is “Wasted Youth” reflects Lewis herself wasting her childhood on feeding her mother’s drug habit (“I wasted my youth on a poppy”), mirroring the entertainment industry’s dark secret of parents exploiting their child star children; Lewis’ own personal favourite/the album’s centrepiece “Dogwood” is a reminiscence to Lewis’ crowning jewel as one-quarter of Rilo Kiley that is “A Better Son/Daughter”, as if she wanted to destroy the fictional relationship built in “Heads Gonna Roll” that is addled with substance abuse, infidelity, and ego amid the misty atmosphere; “Little White Dove” is a ballad from Lewis dedicated to her deceased mother, as she documents everything from the mother’s entrance to the ER (“Behind a yellow curtain on the second floor/All the guardian angels at the door with their long white coats and their stethoscopes”), the reconnection between the estranged two(“When you called me kitten and her majesty/I’m your blood, I want more”) and ultimately the elder’s death(“Under a cool white sheet, here we go”). Compared to her previous efforts as both a solo artist and one-quarter of Rilo Kiley, On The Line
showcased Lewis at her most mature, and her strongest moments when the album clicks in.
Furthermore, the production and the music of the album is its reason that makes the effort a solid effort, as it really accentuates Lewis’ strong voice and persona without having other famous musicians stealing the spotlight. Believe it or not, Ringo Starr from the Beatles actually played drums in the “Heads Gonna Roll” and “Red Bull and Hennessy”, which gives the songs a strong yet catchy beat, enhancing the beauty of these two standouts. The playfully melancholic title-track is a rather irresistible sonic earworm, as it captures psychedelic, agonising feeling of romantic breakup that really recalls Beck
’s Sea Changes
, which is not too surprising since Mr. Hansen himself also produced the track, along with other tracks such as the sonic highlights that are the night-lounge funk ”Little White Dove” and the dance-streaked euphoria “Do Si Do”. “Taffy” may have rather confusing lyrics, but the heartfelt strings coupled with the isolated piano and Lewis’ fragile vocals in the song, makes this song a beautiful recall to Neko Case
’s “I Wish I Was The Moon” and Phair’s Exile In Guyville
’s golden deep cut “Canary”, polishing it as a gem to admire. In short, the wonderful production just adds up very well to the rather inconsistent lyrical strength of this album, meaning Lewis and the producers have provided a beautiful sound to this introspective album.
In a nutshell, Lewis may sound confusing in terms of songwriting in On The Line
, but when it comes to its most clarifying moments, she really hits the mark, and the glossy production contrasted the album’s dark material beautifully, as it successfully flourishes Lewis as a weathered figure. Back to the aforementioned The Golden Girls’ episode, when Daisy demanded a new ransom to the girls for the teddy bear, Rose claimed that she realizes that she needs to separate from her cherished toy friend, and said, “I guess there’s a lesson to be learned here.” But guess what happened then？ Rose then said the following memorable words to Daisy, “Sometimes life just isn’t fair, kiddo,” before snatching the teddy from the little girl’s arms, pushed her out from the door and slammed the door to the surprise of the audiences, and showed a joyous face while hugging her teddy which is saved from the mean girl, with many were delighted for such triumphant moment. Perhaps Lewis finally understands that life just isn’t fair after all, as she condensed her turbulent experiences into this musical collection of cautionary tales and stories that are warm and hazy in her third solo record (fourth if you count her collaborative album with The Watson Twins), albeit quite a quite confusing one that was aided with shimmering production. She may be a grown-up figure, and that she and her star-studded collaborators already make huge leap forward sonically, but this effort could really become the triumph that she wanted to create if she could be more adventurous and consistent in her songwriting, yet at times, she delivered her most poignant and powerful moments as a songwriter.
Personal Rating: 3.72/5
Heads Will Roll
Red Bull and Hennessy
On The Line