Early on in her new record, Jenny Lewis warns us that Mercury’s retrograde wrath is far from over. Her cautionary words form the conceit of “Wasted Youth,” a lament dressed in melody and charm. With the prospect of planetary bad luck looming, Lewis spends the chorus listing some of the ways in which we doom ourselves. Be it the poppy (and likely the nefarious substances for which it is often cultivated) or the blister-inducing high of Candy Crush, our options for self-destruction are limitless.
Over the course of her career, Lewis has long felt at home in the sweet spot where intuitive retrospection meets the snarled twang of alternative Americana. While the territory may be familiar, with “On the Line,” the execution has never been better. Built on the bones of a stretch in her life that saw Lewis end a 12-year relationship with singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice and lose her estranged mother to liver cancer, “On the Line” is an album steeped in reminiscence.
Arriving five years after Lewis’ last effort, 2014’s “The Voyager,” there is a cohesion to this collection that harks back to her solo debut. Just as “Rabbit Fur Coat” was loosely focused on Lewis’ fraught relationship with her mother, “On the Line” in part documents a late in life reconciliation between the two shortly before the latter’s death. The reverent undertones of “Little White Dove” reveal the farthest Lewis is willing to venture in directly exploring this period of time, but her new album repeatedly returns to questions concerning what we do when good memories turn sour.
On opener “Heads Gonna Roll,” a moody piano line is quickly enveloped by the dual percussive powers of famed session musician Jim Keltner and Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. While no one should confuse “On the Line” with a cryptogram in need of decoding, it’s telling that on the album’s final track, the rollicking “Rabbit Hole,” Lewis bemoans that her lover’s powers “had me second-guessing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” Even though Lewis has suggested that her album charts a fairly chronological course from breakup to rebirth, the most compelling aspect of “On the Line” may be the way in which it revisits the past through the chaos of ego.
Whether Lewis is recreating a fight with a lover in which they argued about “everything from Elliott Smith to grenadine” (“Heads Gonna Roll”) or warmly recalling the moment she stole them a Christmas tree (“Taffy”), she opts not to keep the fractured pieces of her cherished memories and dark days cleanly separated. Instead, we follow Lewis as she navigates the wreckage and bliss of two formative relationships that unexpectedly concluded in tandem — a labyrinth of dreams and decay with no promise of happy endings but imbued with a heady sense of purpose.
Helping her through this self-exorcism of sorts is a star-studded collection of musicians, including the aforementioned Starr and Keltner as well as Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and acclaimed producer Don Was on bass. It would be a waste to spend more than a sentence on Ryan Adams, who was minimally involved in the album’s production and has far more serious matters to answer for at the moment. Contributions from Beck in a production role and mixer Shawn Everett that make a far more noticeable impact.
Together, this impressive gathering of artists creates a formative backbone for “On the Line,” a spine within which Lewis can seamlessly pivot from the Stevie Nicks anthem vibes of “Red Bull and Hennessy” to the pensive spirit of the piano-driven “Hollywood Lawn.” If you’re going to cut a song in the style of the Traveling Wilburys (“Rabbit Hole”), you might as well get the drummer from those sessions, Keltner, to crash the cymbals. By working with Everett (who recently mixed Kacey Musgrave’s acclaimed “Golden Hour”), Lewis is also able to minimize the mid-range, an effect which places her vocals deservedly dead center. Pepper in some atmospheric flourishes from Beck, and you’ve got what is quite possibly Lewis’ best album to date.
By the time you arrive at the record’s titular, penultimate track, there’s a hunger for resolution. As a modern-day master of poisonous kiss-offs, Lewis has penchant for bidding adieu in blistering fashion that reaches back to her days with Riley Kiley. With “On the Line,” she channels her inner Darlene Love as she warns her ex to think twice “before you let her under your sweater.” At first blush, these words may seem vindictive, but they may also reflect an ingenuous desire on Lewis’ part to share her newfound wisdom with the person who needs it most.
This gesture underscores the significance of “On the Line” as the bellwether of a new chapter for Lewis. Whereas before her music was a beautiful cipher, she has now warmed to the possibility that the personal can still be poetic. There’s a renewed strength to Lewis’ voice — which reaches untold heights here as it moves from whispered falsetto to potent clarion call — that is hard to dismiss as mere coincidence given the subject matter at hand.
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Lewis recorded her album live in the hallowed halls of Hollywood’s Capitol Studios, eschewing her normal practice of adding vocals later. Perhaps it should be attributed to the time Lewis allowed herself to make this record right. The modern industry is not always a patient creature, but Lewis prioritized the creative process and it shows. Whatever the answers may be, the final result on display in “On the Line” — from the somber waltz of “Do Si Do” to the swell of strings at the climax of “Taffy” — is a new high watermark for a musician who’s never been willing to let a little rain get the best of her.