Jenny Lewis is indie’s undisputed princess. She has been from the moment she stepped foot on the scene in 1998, and still maintains her position of respect in the genre. Beginning with the popular band Rilo Kiley (we’ve all heard their hit “Silver Lining” a few times) and making her mark on several other groups, Lewis has established herself as a master of many trades over the past two decades of music-making. This week’s unveiling of Lewis’s fourth album On the Line, her first solo release in five years, is a milestone in many ways. It’s an obvious example of her growth as both a musician and a human being, the record’s humor and cleverness a testament to Lewis’s resilience after losing her estranged mother and a long-term relationship in the same few years. One of many things Lewis is good at is attacking the tragedies we all face with a perspective equal parts witty and gentle. This makes for music that traverses several different genres, but rests on the same foundation of brilliant candor.
Jenny Lewis not only has a command of indie rock’s fickle landscape, but also that of indie folk, alternative country and everything in between. Her approach to each song is different, yet all of them have a trademark confessional quality that Lewis is known for. However, the personal aspect of her music never overshadows its genuine innovation. There’s no sappiness, despite the subject matter: Every song is expertly produced and arranged, weaving Lewis’s acidic wit with a variety of synth, guitar and even a few organ tracks throughout the album. She sings about her “Wasted Youth,” about addiction on album highlight “Little White Dove,” about the sadness at the end of the party in “Red Bull and Hennessy.” On the Line is what happens when a musician truly knows herself, allowing the darkest and lightest parts of their life to shine through without hesitation.
She is laid bare in the lyrics of every song on the 11-track record, yet still maintains a sense of ownership over her own vices and downfalls. It’s an interesting balance of the songwriter’s proclivity for blunt honesty and the tenderness that comes with sharing a secret. Lewis is not afraid to tell her listeners everything she’s been keeping inside, but she does it carefully, unfurling the pages of her diary with expert hands. On The Line embraces the messier side of the musician’s experiences, but does it through a retrospective and poetic lens.
The record comes on the heels of Lewis’s 2016 breakup with her partner of 12 years, fellow songwriter Johnathan Rice, a loss that infuses each song with a wistful reclamation of independence that’s hard to nail down. At every step of On the Line’s production, Lewis continued this independence and self-respect ― some songs were produced by Ryan Adams before the allegations against him were publicized. He never finished, and the rest of the songs were impeccably produced by indie rock’s most reliable man, Beck. Despite these bumps in the road, On the Line is arguably the truest to herself that Lewis has been on any solo project, and this positive energy worked out in spades: the record features both Ringo Starr and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench. This collection of songs is a win for Lewis in every sense of the word. It’s obvious from even the album artwork, a picture of Lewis’s torso in a low-cut dress that mimics the same style as her 2014 LP The Voyager, that she is no longer held back by the perception of others. She is who she is, and she’s learning and growing just like the rest of us.