To witness a shape-shifting musician like Jenny Lewis truly evolve throughout the years—succeed in multiple projects, try on manifold musical styles, experience pain and loss and outline it all in her songs—and then arrive at a sensational album like On The Line feels monumental. First as the frontwoman of one of the most beloved indie-rock groups of the aughts and then as a realized soloist and supergroup hero, Lewis has had a brilliant career, even when things took a turn for the rocky in her personal life. The best of her four albums outside of Rilo Kiley, On The Line is absolutely dazzling. It sounds decidedly grown up, mature both lyrically and musically, and it’s a spectacular studio effort. Lewis sings contemplative lyrics with a glamorous edge, giving us an album that’s as much a rock ‘n’ roll relaxer as it is a lyrical thunderbolt.
The On the Line singles are all illustrious earworms, but the album opener, “Heads Gonna Roll,” is especially grandiose. As ever, Lewis’ attention to detail and location is mesmerizing. She makes a boxing reference, namedrops Elliot Smith and the “sycophants in Marrakesh,” recalls a run-in with “Harlem nuns” and relaxes with a pack of Marlboros all before proclaiming, “Maybe a little bit of hooking up is good for the soul.” In a most delightful way, “Heads Gonna Roll” is about everything and nothing. Another single, “Red Bull & Hennessy,” is one of the best rock songs of the year so far. Marking at least the second mention of cocktail ingredients on this album, “Red Bull & Hennessy” is a delicious display of desire. Lewis teases and taunts as electric keys and sweltering guitar chords carry the song to the point of extinguishing. Even as it digs up personal traumas, On the Line often flirts with indulgence, and a line like “Don’t you wanna even try and devour the moon?” sounds nearly lustful.
Lewis, like any good songwriter, also has a knack for fiction. On “Wasted Youth,” she sings, “I wasted my youth on a poppy,” even though she did no such thing: In the ‘80s, Lewis began working as a child actress almost as soon as she could walk. Only later did she discover her mother, a heroin addict throughout Lewis’ childhood who recently passed away, was using her earnings to buy and sell drugs. But on that same song, before chirping a series of “doo doo doos” and offering the dark statement that “the cookie crumbles into dust,” Lewis pitches us her humor: “Why you lyin’?” she teases. “The Bourbon’s gone / Mercury hasn’t been in / Retrograde for that long.” Where in the past she faced sadness head-on, here Lewis views trauma through a wizened, witty lens.
Songs like “Do Si Do” don’t come around too often. Lewis’ collaboration with Beck is a highlight of the album, the rare tune that, much like “Heads Gonna Roll,” might not be about anything in particular, but still glimmers and glows like a prophecy purchased from a fortune teller—meaningless if you’re a nonbeliever, but deeply insightful should you look inwards. What does she mean when she sings “Life is a disco, a mambo”? I can’t be entirely sure, but I’d like to think Lewis is telling us life is a party. “Turn up the stereo / ‘Til everything rattles,” she sings. It’s a command you can be sure Lewis is following herself.
The penultimate tracks sees Lewis again creating colorful characters and larger-than-life situations. In the first verse she sings, “He left me for an Eastside girl called Caroline,” and later on she says, “Whenever things get complicated / You run away to Mexico.” It’s a fitting way to close an album full of Hollywood-sized scenes of booze and boys and hyperbolic emotions. Jenny Lewis has been through the ringer. But On The Line, her best solo work to date, finds her trading chaos for peace and pain for parties. And West Coast rock combined with piano glam and Lewis’ lyrics makes for a most celebratory listen, indeed.