Jenny Lewis Reaches Staggering Heights With Impassioned and Immersive ‘On The Line’

Jenny Lewis is an indie icon of the highest ranks — so emblematic of a certain sound, aesthetic, and personality that it can be hard to separate her from it all. Before her newest band, Nice As Fuck, before her solo work and her roles in the Postal Service and Jenny and Johnny, she already seemed iconic as frontwoman of Rilo Kiley. Little known fact, she was originally recruited as a backing vocalist. Of course, speaking up can go a long way, as it does on Lewis’ largely autobiographical third solo album, “On the Line.” Inspired by her mother’s death and the end of her twelve-year relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Jonathan Rice, Lewis makes no attempt to downplay the drama, yet manages to generally forego doom and gloom, without compromising authenticity. She took the studio with an A-list team, including Beck, Ringo Starr, former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, multi-instrumentalist/producer Don Was and prolific session drummer Jim Keltner. With a singular wit and perspective, Lewis has spun her situations into a memorable set of poised, often beaming, songs.

Don’t be fooled by the forebodingly titled opener “Heads Gonna Roll.” Lewis is a boxing fan, and has said she set out to write a “boxing ballad.” If you have trouble making sense of what exactly that means, you’re about as prepared as possible for the upcoming album. The rather cheery first number is a bona fide impartation of wisdom through fanciful autobiographical storytelling, with references to such specifics as “the sycophants in Marrakesh” and “the nuns of Harlem.” The chorus melody resolves upon the climactic, or anti-climactic, titular line, whereupon Lewis flaunts her devil-may-care attitude, reasoning, “After all is said and done, we’ll all be skulls / Heads gonna roll.” “Wasted Youth” lingers on this idea, with a blithely sung refrain of “I wasted my youth on a poppy / Doo-doo.” These words are surely issued with some irony, as they likely allude to Lewis’ mother’s struggles with heroin. The music is fittingly, almost farcically gleeful. Still, the lyrics seem more of an open-ended musing than moralising, and they lead to a reiteration that “We are here and we’re gone / Do something, while your heart is thumping.”

Lead single “Red Bull & Hennessey” is an anticipatory breakup song masquerading as feelgood music. Lewis insists, “Never gettin’ back again without that spark,” and goes on to jab, “I’m wired on Red Bull and Hennessy / Higher than you.” There’s a distinct New Wave influence, recalling country as channeled by Elvis Costello. The song is so immediately catchy as to seem nearly saturated with pop artifacts. There’s a bit of Lewis’ melody strikingly similar to one from Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” and another almost certainly lifted from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” Next, “Hollywood Lawn” is a take on the age-old, jaded country song, in which listless drawls belie optimistic sentiments. In Lewis’ case there’s a certain blitheness in the face of desperation, and an agreeable elasticity to her singing that comes out in her calls to “Keep Dreaming.” At any rate, it gives way to the bright, buoyant power pop of “Do Si Do,” a number so over-the-top in its gleeful stylings that it can be difficult to take at face value. It begins a bit like an early Beatles song, then gives way to peak eighties synth tomfoolery, replete with “oh oh” male backing vocals in the style of, say, A-ha. Written for a friend experiencing mental health issues, this song is also another reminder to enjoy yourself, as Lewis sings, “Life is a disco, a mambo / Put on your day glow.”

Lewis has called “Dogwood” her favorite song of the album, which makes sense, as it’s by far the most personal. A remarkable feature of Lewis’ music is how impeccably each song’s music matches its sentiments. On this track, the chord progressions are especially important in conveying the charged emotion of the lyrics. The arrangements mirror the speaker’s thought processes, with pauses at reflective moments, flourishes upon declarations of passion, etc. The chorus is a cathartic outpouring of a distinctly country type. The lyrics recount the disillusion of a long relationship, ending in the acknowledgment that “There’s nothing we can do / But screw / And booze and amphetamines, oh.” At this point, Lewis offers some relief with the droll revelry that is “Party Clown.”  It sounds as if a cavalcade of carnival musicians joined the band for a brief, collective racket upon the titular line. Lewis finds profundity in even this silliness, reflecting, “I was living my life in stencil / But the rainbow was inside of me.”

“Little White Dove” is a song about Lewis’ late mother. Lewis has said she “wrote it at the pace it took me to walk from the hospital elevator to the end of the hall,” and that she did play it for her mother.  Over dubby splash sounds and a pure funk bassline, she sings with a certain late sixties / seventies sensibility, and sounds poised as always. Her first utterance of the word “dove” comes with what sounds like an Auto-tune hiccup —a rather brilliant, isolated production choice.  There’s a distinctly Southern rock quality to the song, with an upbeat feel. “Taffy,” by contrast, conventionally matches music and mood. Zeroing in on the experience of heartbreak, it’s a relatively somber moment in an an album that comes across overall as quite light, at least in spirit. Here, string arrangements lift the song above the mundane, and the lyrics abound with esoteric Wisconsin references, adding a certain narrative authenticity, in the tradition of Bob Dylan.

The title track expresses an afterthought to the preceding anecdote: “Before you let her under your sweater tonight / Listen to my heart beating / On the line.” Although hardly a happy thought, it’s been built into a bubbly, mobilizing tune for getting up and going on — perhaps a bit like Springsteen, even. In the end, the music slickly fades to the lone sound of a dial tone, originally conceived as the final sound on the recording. Ultimately, Lewis chose to add “Rabbit Hole,” “almost as a mantra to myself,” for an ending. Amid further New Wave flavor and a resurgence of the unbridled positivity of “Do Si Do,” Lewis turns up the country element with plenty personality and flair, maintaining, “I’m not gonna go down the rabbit hole with you again.” In the end, “On the Line” hardly has a weak moment. Jenny Lewis is a veteran performer and an exceptional creative visionary. Interestingly, subject matter fraught with emotion seems to have facilitated new creative heights. From the folk traditions and country templates to the eighties indulgences and funky excursions, there’s a fluid, masterful channeling of resonant ideas into pop songs that are dynamic, catchy, and clever.

On the Line” is available March 22 on Apple Music.