Above all else, Jenny Lewis’ On the Line is a record that gets better with every listen. To be more specific, with this album Lewis excels at crafting a textured, specific and heady world that luxuriates in big feelings and big sound, and it is so good.
It’s no secret that the two primary inspirations for On the Line are the double losses of Lewis’ estranged mother to cancer, and her twelve-year relationship with frequent collaborator Johnathan Rice. The dissolution of a relationship and the confrontation of mortality are certainly present themes on this album, but they are mostly explored in that particular Lewis voice which meshes a world-weary pragmatism with a dash of humor and vivid imagery. While On the Line contains those Lewis touches, it also reveals a fresh and invigorating sound that we haven’t heard from Lewis before. Lewis has spoken about the choice to strip the “midrange” sound of each track, and it’s a choice you can feel in your bones. This choice highlights the thumping rhythms of each track, as well as Lewis’ crisp and committed vocals, which are the two essential elements of the album. Lewis tells you to “turn up the stereo, ‘til everything rattles” on this record and for the first time in her discography, you could easily do that.
The thrilling energy of the album doesn’t preclude Lewis from crafting complex stories about equally complex emotions. Rather, the combination of deep feeling and intricate psych-rock creates a potent mix that hits you instantly—not unlike the “Red Bull & Hennessy” featured on one of the most hard-rocking songs of the album.
Every track here seems to contain its own universe within it, with a unique personality unto itself. “On the Line” is a throwback ditty, “Party Clown” is a psychedelic trip and “Little White Dove” is a swaggering classic rocker. They all have their unique charms, with most reaching a cathartic high, giving you an emotional arc to travel and complete with every track. “Heads Gonna Roll” unleashes that epic organ solo from Benmont Tench, “Red Bull & Hennessy” pulls out double drums by Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr, and “Dogwood” drapes Lewis’ soaring voice with some evocative effects.
The album is somehow both fun and constantly compelling, while still plumbing the complex depths of those classic inspirations of sex, love, drugs, and death. “Heads Gonna Roll” is an excellent start to the album, because it confronts both of Lewis’ personal inspirations with a classic Lewis sentiment that amounts to “well, we’re all gonna’ die anyway.” “Dogwood” is the centerpiece track that, while slow initially, gradually reveals itself to be the emotional icing that sits inside of the metaphorical Oreo cookie that is this album. It pulls it together and adds a soft vulnerability amidst the relatively hard rock of the surrounding songs.
Later track “Taffy” is one of the two tracks that feel slightly less essential than the others and this one largely because it does a lot of the work “Dogwood” already completed. However, with “Taffy” we do get one last heavy, introspective and starkly vulnerable relationship referendum. It leads into one of the lightest tracks, “On the Line,” which feels like the ultimate catharsis for the entire album. I could be happy with “On the Line” finishing the record, but the Beck-produced “Rabbit Hole” lets us have just an extra minute of relief and closure from this genuinely emotional, physical kind of record experience, despite being a comparatively weightless song on the album. Beck is responsible for two of the best and most atmospheric songs on the record: “Little White Dove” and “Do Si Do.” “Do Si Do” in particular demands to be listened to with open air on a hot, breezy day.
The only real flaw of the album is the rather heavy involvement of Ryan Adams as producer and guitarist. Lewis announced her support of the women who recently came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse by the musician, but it still stings a bit when you see his name aligned with what is such an otherwise fantastic showcase for Lewis and all of her talents.
On the Line, among other things, proves that long stretches of time between records can lead to some of the richest and fully accomplished records of an artists’ career. The life experiences Lewis lived through between 2014’s The Voyager and this year’s release were monumental ones. Ending a relationship that carried you through a decade of your life, and losing your last living parent are experiences which necessarily reorient your worldview. That reorientation becomes clear on On the Line, with Lewis’ transcendent and cathartic vocals telling the emotional story of a person who went through it and made it to the other side someone different, someone bigger, and someone deeper.
There is a lot to love on this record for longtime Lewis fans, but there is something new here too. Lewis sounds, all of a sudden, like a full grown woman and even more so, like the music legend she was always destined to be.