Jenny Lewis’ stellar songwriting chops were visible back in 2001 on Takeoffs and Landings, the first LP by Rilo Kiley, the band she co-fronted with Blake Sennett. They’ve only grown stronger since — and as her take on the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” proved, she’s got a way with covers, too. To give some context to On The Line, her fourth solo LP, here are some highlights, past to present.
“Pictures of Success” (Rilo Kiley, Take Offs and Landings, 2001) A sweetly chilling evocation of broke-ass despair cloaked in shaky optimism, this gem from Rilo Kiley’s debut, delivered over a chiming indie-rock trot, has Lewis working her upper register for maximum recovering-child-actor drama. When she coos “These are times that can’t be weathered” on the outro, alongside a trumpet line suggesting both a cavalry charge and “Taps,” it’s still as evocative and timely as it’s ever been.
“A Better Son/Daughter” (Rilo Kiley, The Execution of All Things, 2002) A morning panic attack gets recounted as if through a rotary phone, then builds and explodes into an affirmational anthem driven by military snare and ripping guitar. The confidence feels unstable (“You’ll fake it if you have to/And you’ll show up for work with a smile”), but ain’t it always?
“It’s a Hit” (Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous, 2004) Lewis began her band’s major label debut with a sneer at then-President Bush, who’d recently ordered the Iraq invasion (“Any chimp can play human for a day… And run for office on election day/Fancy himself a real decision-maker”). Then she side-eyes the act of writing pop hits with a mea culpa shrug. Badass, knowing, eternal.
“Portions For Foxes” (Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous, 2004) Lewis quotes the Bible on this song about booty call self-medication and a “bad news” relationship the singer can’t quite give up. And the moral high ground is out of reach: regarding her lover’s other hookups, she fesses: “I don’t blame you/I do the same thing, I get lonely too.”
“Rise Up With Fists!!” (Rabbit Fur Coat, 2006) Lewis’ solo debut opens with this skeptical pep-talk to herself, framed by an indictment of some creep having a Vegas affair and a nod to the moral hypocrisy of preachers. Echoing her are the Watson Twins, whose soulful country-gospel backing vocals make Lewis sound like a next-gen Tammy Wynette.
“Rabbit Fur Coat” (Rabbit Fur Coat, 2006) A waltz for acoustic guitar that tells the story of “a hundred thousand dollar kid” and her trouble-courtin’, drug-snortin’ mom. Lewis, a child actor of some note back in the day, has said the lyrics are mostly fiction, but she sells ‘em like memoir.
“Handle With Care” (Rabbit Fur Coat, 2006) This Traveling Wilburys rewind casts Lewis as George Harrison, Ben Gibbard as Roy Orbison, and a tag-team of M. Ward and Conor Oberst as Dylan/Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne. It’s spot-on, and shows how Lewis can share ownership of even a deeply trademarked song (she did a nifty cover of Bowie’s “Rock’N’Roll Suicide” with Rilo Kiley back in the day). Having left the indie-rock clubhouse for major label wilds, she testifies to being “stuck in airports, terrorized/Sent to meetings, hypnotized/Overexposed, commercialized” with knowing weariness. But like the dudes who sang the original, she’s handled it all like a pro.
“Just One of The Guys” (The Voyager, 2014) Lewis stares down the passage of time with this meditation on maternal FOMO and gender expectations (“When I look at myself, all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby”). But she goes out determined to do things her way, as ever.
“She’s Not Me” (The Voyager, 2014) This Philly soul jam is a twisted love letter to an ex — part kiss-off, part come-on, part apology, part knife-twist. And the all-star video is a hoot, with Fred Armisen as a tweaked skateboarder (and blue-haired lady), Feist as air-guitar-shredding priest, and Zosia Mamet and Leo Fitzpatrick as funky girl scouts.
“Wasted Youth” (On The Line, 2019) With echoes of Tapestry-era Carole King and Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” the forty-something survivor blithely notes that she’s “sliding down a bong,” and that she wasted her youth “on a poppy.” But amidst chipper, haunted “doo-doo-doo”s, she dispenses cautionary wisdom for the kids, hard-won and maternal: “just because you’re young/ don’t mean nothing…we are here and we’re gone/ do something!”