Review Summary: I could hear everything, together with the hum of my hotel neon.
When I last saw Jenny Lewis, touring behind 2014’s The Voyager
, she opened her show alone, behind her piano on a raised dais in that ridiculous rainbow-hued suit. “I’m not the same woman that you were used to,” she sang before those drums kicked in, the stage lights illuminated her band in hazy backlight, and confetti streamed down by percussive command; and then her thesis statement: “I put my head underwater baby, I threw my clothes away in the trash.” In a little over a month I’ll be seeing her again, this time at the Hollywood Palladium. That venue is a sizable triumph for any artist, but one that seems almost limiting for a songwriter now painting on as widescreen a canvas as On the Line
. Give me the timeless backdrop of the Hollywood Bowl; the sylvan fairy tale surrounding the Greek Theatre; hell, even the chintzy, chipped old Hollywood regalia of the Wiltern if you must.
Of course, I'm being selfish – wherever she plays, Lewis will make it her own. At this stage of career she inhabits a singularly distinct sound, an experience more akin to listening to an era than any one artist. At her best, she sounds like how Hollywood sounds to all the wistful dreamers streaming west on the 10 over the years, like those mythic venues where all the legends Lewis now parades like talismans on this record – a Beatle here, a Heartbreaker there – sweat and bled: a dream just within reach. It’s difficult to think of a track that exemplifies this idealized vibe more than opener “Heads Gonna Roll,” a painstakingly detailed, sweepingly epic relationship drama that ebbs and crashes waves of love, frustration, uncertainty, and regret. With side-eye descriptions of “convertible red Porsches” and private jets as symbols of a hollow love high on its own supply, the rot at its heart is gorgeous and seductive. The metaphor may be obvious, but “Heads Gonna Roll” and On the Line
as a whole never feels manufactured, or, really, like anything less than Lewis telling it to you straight.
Making the personal feel representative of an entire city and a certain mythos is not for the fainthearted, but Lewis, with her tantalizingly specific lyrics and casual non sequiturs, does it so well throughout On the Line
that you hardly notice the sleight of hand. Consider the drug-addled “Party Clown” or the fractured, frustrated “Hollywood Lawn,” songs where you don’t even notice the decay settling in, thanks to that Sunset Blvd. sheen and those deep, sonorous piano melodies. “Wasted Youth” rides a timeless shimmer of a riff into a bouncy contemplation of everyday addiction (“I wasted my youth on a poppy / just for fun / just because), while “Red Bull and Hennessey” and its chugging guitar is more of a blunt instrument, fitting the disgusting cocktail of its title and the cynical surrender in its lyrics: “Never gettin’ back again without that spark.” It’s true that the record leans a little too heavily into mid-tempo morass for its own good. By the time the gospel-tinged optimism of “Dogwood” rolls around, one gets the sense that Lewis may have contracted a touch of Important Singer-Songwriter grandeur from the Carole King piano she taps on throughout. To its exceedingly well-produced credit, though, nothing here can be considered a throwaway (although the Beck-influenced funk of “Little White Dove” comes awfully close).
Lewis has now been making music as a solo artist longer than she did as frontwoman for Rilo Kiley, a band consistently lumped in with its Saddle Creek mates but one that always felt more at home among the palm trees and the canyons. It’s not hard to see the similarities between The Other Woman tragedy of “Does He Love You"” and the self-lacerating, self-doubting “Taffy” – “I wanted to please you, my dress was see-through / as I looked through your phone / I am such a coward / how could you send her flowers"” The characters in Lewis’ stories are always self-aware enough to dissect their flaws, not quite strong enough to fix them. It’s a vicious cycle that Lewis has been cataloguing for decades, but rarely with as much poignancy as On the Line
– a bittersweet gift from the traumas in her personal life over the past five years. What to make, then, of “Rabbit Hole,” where Lewis sounds like she’s finally broken through. “Bad habits will be broken / Boy, I have kicked a few / and seven days off the dope and I’ll be as good as new / I’m not gonna go down the rabbit hole / with you, with you, with you again,” she sings, independent and defiant. But Lewis knows herself better than to continue fooling herself, as that dizzying outro makes clear; she’ll just do it on her own terms: “I am gonna go down the rabbit hole / without you, without you.”