This seasoned veteran sounds like an artist in search of her voice.
After a handful of solid solo efforts and time spent fronting Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis is a seasoned veteran who has long maintained a fairly identifiable sound, both vocally and as a writer. Yet with her latest album, On the Line, she sounds like an artist in search of her voice.
Lewis still shows herself to be able to put together some top-notch music and musicians (here including Ringo Starr, Don Was, Beck, Benmont Tench, and Jim Keltner, just to name the ringers), but there’s something decidedly lacking. Where before she remained well contained within a given musical idiom, here she wanders.
A spiritual successor to 2014’s excellent The Voyager – right down to the cover image, albeit with a fairly telling wardrobe change – On the Line once again finds Lewis working with Ryan Adams in the producer’s chair. His recent personal troubles fortunately do not cast a shadow, though his tendency to genre-hop at will does seem to have adversely affected Lewis’ approach. Indeed, a good producer is capable of being both a sympathetic ear and a stylistic steward, helping the artist remain on track and ensure a cohesive product. Adams fails to do that here. And though he only produced part of the album, it’s enough to throw a wrench in the otherwise perfectly proficient works.
Opening with the surging AOR/Laurel Canyon balladry of “Heads Gonna Roll,” On the Line quickly establishes itself as a California record in name-checked geography and feel. This should come as no surprise given Lewis’ long-term residency and the caliber of Southern California session players she’s assembled. But this tends to work against her as she flits from easy-going country rock to Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac pop balladry to the Beach House-aping “Do Is Do.” The latter is particularly indicative of Lewis searching for a voice that suits the character of the song rather than vice versa.
Long time listeners will find it hard to pin down Lewis’ previously inimitable vocals, instead left with a chameleon constantly on the move. The closest she gets to her established musical persona is on “Hollywood Lawn” and certain moments within “Red Bull & Hennessy.” Of course artistic growth and development beyond the status quo is encouraged, but not at the price of losing one’s way.
There could be a very good reason for this sense of searching given the changes in her personal life in the years since The Voyager, most notably her breakup with long-time partner, musician Johnathan Rice, and the reunion/reconciliation that took place in the months leading up to her previously estranged mother’s death. A life-long drug addict and fleeting presence in her daughter’s life, their mending of fences and renewed relationship shows up throughout much of On the Line, particularly on the spare, stuttering funk of “Little White Dove.” On the Line is not a failure. It features some of Lewis’ best material in the title track, “Heads Gonna Roll” and “Red Bull & Hennessy.” But there isn’t enough between these moments to elevate the whole to something beyond a merely pleasant listening experience. It’s a little too tired and relaxed to hold the listener’s attention for 47 minutes.