It’s been a whole six years since Jenny Lewis released her last completely solo record, Acid Tongue. Before that, she released Rabbit Fur Coat – jointly attributed to the Watson Twins. Both records allowed her to stretch her distinct, American-folk muscles. On Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis opted for a rootsy approach, while on Acid Tongue she sold her song-writing soul to Americana, with startling beautiful effect. It’s significant that Lewis never touched true rock or indie when recording as a solo artist. Her band Rilo Kiley had that niche sown up and Lewis seemed to use her spare recording time to experiment with other genres. But now Rilo Kiley have officially split up, Lewis is free to traverse down her band’s well-worn roads as she pleases.
As such, much of The Voyager sees Lewis flirting with many of the stylistic cornerstones of her old band. In particular, many of the songs carry with them tones of Rilo Kiley’s criminally underrated final album Under the Blacklight, an album that should have helped the band achieve crossover success but instead somehow failed to be their commercial catalyst. Indeed, listening to The Voyager sounds a little like hearing a lost Rilo Kiley record. Lewis, as the band’s front-woman, was obviously an integral and distinctive element of the band’s sound but on her previous records Lewis never sounded like she was retracing her own steps. By contrast, The Voyager sometimes comes across as a love letter to a lost group, an elegy for times gone by. Sonically, Lewis embraces many of the pop-rock conventions that shrouded her band; on ‘She’s Not Me,’ the throwback pop of her former band can be heard in the rhythms and melodies. On ‘Slippery Slopes,’ Lewis explores some of the themes that coloured Rilo Kiley’s output, most significantly drug use. Lewis sings, ‘slippery slopes/ mushrooms and coke’ over a melody that sounds as if it’s been lifted straight from Under the Blacklight.
But dismissing The Voyager as simply an off-cut of Rilo Kiley is pretty short-sighted. You can’t listen to any album featuring Jenny Lewis without noticing the exquisite lyrical craft and storytelling ability that goes into each song. ‘The New You,’ despite being one of the softer cuts on the LP, still manages to pull off an impressive rhyme with ‘kill em all’ and ‘headbanger’s ball.’ The recent single ‘Just One of the Guys’ sees Lewis wrestling with the concept of her own ticking biological clock. ‘Aloha and the Three Johns’ is perhaps the most impressive example of song craft on the record; not only does it have an amazing melody but it also sees Lewis describing ‘a failed trip to paradise’ in the most acerbic terms. ‘Head Underwater’ once again sees her tackling the issue of substance abuse, but also hides its tale of woe, drugs and insomnia under some of the sunniest and sprightliest melodies that Lewis has ever created. The impact that the death of her father had on Lewis is profoundly visible in the final, title track. ‘The Voyager’ is steeped in strings and some electronics, while beneath it all Lewis laments the concepts of death and grief. Indeed, the final track is something of an ode to the past and a look ahead to what may come in the future as Lewis sings, ‘the voyager’s in every boy and girl/ if you wanna get to heaven, get out of this world.’ While undoubtedly not the catchiest part of the album, it does reveal some of the inner psychological workings of Lewis and lets us see her at her most vulnerable.
Despite the long shadow that her former band has cast over her, Lewis still manages to shine on The Voyager. While it is sometimes too varied in tone and ideas, it manages to synthesize many of the concepts that Rilo Kiley explored while also embracing some of the quirks of Lewis’ solo material. Perhaps trying to consolidate the two makes it a little disjointed and an uneven listen at times but there is no doubt that in isolation every track is beautifully written, composed and performed by the criminally overlooked Lewis. While Under the Blacklight’s failure to capture a larger audience was baffling, The Voyager should succeed where it couldn’t. As a tribute to her former band and as a solo album in its own right, it will probably end up being one of the standout throwback pop records of the year.