“I’m happy to see her making records, I just feel like music needs her. It needs someone doing what she’s doing. She’s got a special voice, as a writer, and then as a musician. She’s this great combination of so many things.”
That is how Beck feels about Jenny Lewis’ return to the music scene after a four year absence, and once again Beck is right on the money. A lot has been made in the run up to The Voyager’s release of the five years since Lewis last put out a solo record. It’s a break she was definitely deserving of, but that still doesn’t make it any easier to accept. For someone so prolific and proficient in the ‘00s, hopping from Rilo Kiley releases to solo projects, endeavours with The Watson Twins and boyfriend Jonathan Rice respectively, and onto cameos on Bright Eyes, Elvis Costello and The Postal Service albums, it was almost worrying that she had not popped up to say hello on any release since Brandon Flowers’ Flamingo. A Brandon Flowers album cut is no check point for any musician to hang their most recent contribution to the art form on for too long, let alone one of the finest songwriters of her generation.
And thankfully, with a live return last year accompanying The Postal Service and an archival Rilo Kiley release, that is now no longer the case. Jenny Lewis’ return to music has now come full circle with the release of The Voyager, an album born out of bouts of sequential sleepless nights amongst intense personal turmoil. Lewis says it is the hardest record she has ever made, which completely contrasts how easy a listen it is. Her song writing is as strong as it’s ever been. Not as flash as during her time in Rilo Kiley, but so strongly constructed it would take one hell of a disproportionately large bull headed individual to chip away at the quality of tunes on offer here.
The Beck produced, folk rock lead single, ‘Just One Of The Guys’, a warm feminist rousing number built upon an undercurrent of poignant camaraderie, leads the album in style, all sunshine and wilting flowers, and presents a solid and assertive platform the album builds upon. It’s a fun yet fundamentally earnest song, suitably evidenced in its star studded video that delightfully incorporates Kirsten Stewart, Anne Hathaway, Brie Larson and Tennessee Thomas. The majority of the album was produced by Ryan Adams at his PAX AM studios, also the setting for Adams’ own upcoming release. From the few tracks we’re privy to from that album it sounds like it could well be the best Tom Petty album of the year, and that style seems to translate to The Voyager at times, more in the later riffs on songs like the jingley jangley ‘The New You’ and the racing adjacent leads of the climatic ‘Love U Forever’. But never more so than during the entirety of the effortlessly cool sunglasses clad ‘She’s Not Me’, the soothingly bluesy track centred on a former romance and the strange superiority complex complexity that follows. Ain’t that the way of all great loves?
For all the Rilo Kiley connoisseurs there is even a tip of the hat to ‘Under The Blacklight’ on ‘Slippery Slopes’, whose opening riff sounds like a dark sludgy recreation of the latter’s chorus and matching troubled murky lyrical theme of Jenny Lewis’ past.
It’s interesting to note Lewis’ choosing of Ryan Adams and Beck to collaborate with on this album. Not just because I once saw a picture Adams where he looked like Beck’s doppelganger and am yet to see any physical similarity between the two since, but also because of the position they once held in the music world and where they find themselves today. At one point in his career Ryan Adams had released ten albums in eight years, Beck seven in six. Both of them have at one point put out three albums in one year, and have recently taken elongated breaks from music due to ailment. Both have returned, or are returning, with new albums this year and intend on releasing a second by the time the year is out. It’s quite nice to think of The Voyager as a kind of “getting the band back together” type of fare, despite the fact the three of them have never collaborated together before. It’s an endearing setup, three of the more prolific acts of the last 20 years uniting to break out from the wilderness. In a time when it’s easier than ever to release music, on a whim and without a moment’s notice, these three artists were there and doing it when it was difficult to get it out there. And it’s great to have them all back and healthy again.
The closing title track is a beautiful big front and centre ballad, delicate and emotion laden, aptly playing the album out in a grandiose fashion. Lewis’ meditative sentiment is at its strongest here. Encompassing and comforting, simple at its core, consuming in its sweeping string section splendour and intermittent electronic flickers, it’s lyrics of the titled voyager being ‘in every boy and girl’ are as effecting as they are applicable to the song itself. A majestic culmination.
And so with that Jenny Lewis has returned. To bookend Beck’s opening glowing remarks, I now hand the floor over to Conor Oberst: “Go see her play, because we should all feel lucky to be around while she’s doing her magic.” You heard the guy, go see the girl.
The Voyager is out now via Warner Bros. Records.