Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
Warner Bros. (9/23/08)
With 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat, Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis wowed critics and shocked fans by releasing an album of sparse, beautiful and haunting songs in the style of classic country and soul. That record showed her stepping out of the shadow of Rilo Kiley collaborator/ex-boyfriend Blake Sennett and crafting a piece of art that took some of the best melodic and lyrical elements of Rilo Kiley’s best songs and stripped away any layers of hipster irony and guard to make one of the most touching albums of our generation.
On her new solo record, Acid Tounge, Lewis steps confidently into her solo role. This record genre-hops more than Rabbit Fur Coat (and almost as much as Rilo Kiley’s excellent Under The Blacklight, from last year), but it keeps itself rooted in the country and soul of the ’60s and ’70s. Jenny Lewis has the kind of character in her voice for which any Idol contestant couldn’t begin to hope; no one recording these days strikes such a fine balance between delicate and powerful.
Acid Tounge is adorned with Lewis’ friends and fans as collaborators (ranging from Elvis Costello to her footstep-following She & Him), but in all instances, even from Elvis himself, they just seem like interlopers when tackling her personal, wordy lyrics. On this album, not only does Jenny Lewis fully revel in the limelight—she commands the stage.
Lewis has a knack for kicking albums off with tracks that make you feel like you’re already knee-deep in her lovelorn and faithless world: on Rabbit with the one-two punch of “The Big Guns” and “Rise Up with Fists!!” (we’re not going to count the tune-up, “Run Devil Run”), and on Acid Tounge she kicks it off with “Black Sand”. One of Lewis’ trademarks is to take a melody that seems butt-simple, even childlike, and singing it in such a way that it radiates with soul and depth. Over the repeated refrain, “I fell in love with a beautiful boy / On the black sand”, she pulls off that rare feat of making a love song sound wistful and forlorn. It’s both sweet and bittersweet at the same time, and the mood it captures is completely unique in modern music.
This record is no downer, though—a few tracks later we get the twang-rock swagger of “Next Messiah”, which feels like a rattlesnake slithering towards you in the grass. It’s all turgid with atmosphere and fits in the vein of the classic male-tribute blues songs, although the male in question here is her daddy. While a lot of times Jenny’s music seems to have just enough construct and wordiness that it doesn’t have appeal with the average schmoes, “Next Messiah” wouldn’t be out of place in any shot-and-brew joint I’ve ever been to.
Lewis’ struggles with spirituality and her Christian upbringing are a recurring theme in her solo work. The title track here is a sparse campfire sing-along with one of her best lines on this theme: “I went to a cobbler to fix a hole in my shoe / He took one look at my face and said ‘I can fix that hole in you’ / I beg your pardon, I’m not lookin’ for a cure / I’ve seen enough of my friends in the depths of the God-sick blues”. The epic-sized album closer “Sing a Song for Them” shows that her shaken faith hasn’t uprooted her Christian values, imploring you to sing a song for “weekend tweakers”, “fairies on Main Street”, and “deadbeat daddies and boulevard freaks”. Gospel also informs the bittersweet “Godspeed” and the string-accented and arena-sized “Trying My Best to Love You”. And while it’s hard to listen to Acid Tounge and not focus on Jenny’s gorgeous voice and lyrics, the instrumentation is top-notch here, and rare are the records nowadays that use the piano so naturally.
The track that has seemed to garner the most attention from Acid Tounge is “Jack Killed Mom”. In the vein of classic-’70s story songs like “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”, this is a murder-revenge story centering on the narrator avenging her mother. (Lewis’ own mother frequently pops up in her lyrics; rarely has any artist wrung so much art out of parental issues). The piano riff has a sprightly whorehouse-jazz quality, and each chorus builds into a ’70s-arena-groove-rock riff. At the crest of the song it breaks down into a Jerry Lee Lewis-style hootenanny rave-up, with some deft guitar work and a Killer-worthy howl from Jenny. This is the track Rolling Stone recommends you download, but it needs to be heard as part of the record. As the next-to-last track, it takes the mood upward about ten notches and feels like the dramatic crescendo to the album—cinematic, and followed by “Sing a Song for Them”, it makes you reflect on the record you just heard and what a tour-de-force it is.
While Rabbit Fur Coat had a more demure and personal quality that felt like it came from a deeper place in Jenny Lewis’ heart, Acid Tounge feels like the work of a more confident artist. While I’d hate to see her leave Rilo Kiley or put them on the backburner, her solo work is on the level that could open her up to a broader audience. By which I mean, all the true indie geeks are still going to see what is amazing about her music, but the yuppie crowd that buys CDs for their coffee-table value will recognize something in her music that appeals to whatever kitsch sense they have. At any juncture, Jenny Lewis is going to make the kind of music that bares her soul and in return, resonates in the soul of everyone who hears it.