Jenny Lewis has been a fixture in indie rock for two decades, firstly with Rilo Kiley and then a solo career. Even before her music career Lewis was a public figure; a child actress who debuted in a Jell-O commercial and appeared in numerous TV series and movies, like 1989’s The Wizard.
The switch to music was justified – Lewis is a gifted writer, and her vocals are gorgeous, honeyed and clear. Her voice carries some of the same gravitas and wisdom of a previous generation of hard-livin’ country singers.
2019’s On The Line is Lewis’ fourth solo album. Lewis lives near Laurel Canyon, and On The Line is a lush, singer-songwriter record that reflects the location. Lewis utilised vintage equipment previously used by Carole King. The stately I-V-IV chord sequence of ‘Hollywood Lawn’ echoes Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s ‘Helpless’.
Lewis’ piano and vocals are supported by a stellar band, including drummers Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr, Beck, Don Was, Jason Faulkner, and Ryan Adams. Longtime Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench turns in a wonderful organ solo on the opening ‘Heads Gonna Roll’.
Lewis had a lot to write about – leading up to On The Line, she dealt with the end of a twelve year relationship with songwriter Johnathan Rice and the death of her mother. There are references to both events liberally scattered among the lyrics of On The Line. “You thought I was your muse/But all along it was you” is a cutting line from ‘Dogwood’, while ‘Little White Dove’ deals with her mother’s hospitalisation.
Addiction and desire are common themes for On The Line. Lewis’ mother struggled with a heroin addiction, and ‘Wasted Youth’ features the line “I wasted my youth on a poppy.” The first verse of ‘Party Clown’ recalls “I was a girl in a black Corvette/Getting head in the shadows”, while lead single ‘Red Bull and Hennessy’ proclaims “I’m wired on Red Bull and Hennessy.”
Most of these songs are introspective and based around Lewis’ piano, but she varies the formula just enough to keep things interesting. ‘Little White Dove’ rocks hard, despite containing some of the record’s most personal lyrics, while closer ‘Rabbit Hole’ is a quickly strummed singalong.
Amazingly, I’d never caught up with Lewis’ work previously, and I’ve dived back into her work with Rilo Kiley and her previous solo records. On The Line is a great record on its own terms, musically lush and lyrically honest.