[25 September 2008]
Has Elvis Costello’s professional relationship with Jenny Lewis started rubbing off on her music? Costello has been a vocal fan of both Lewis and her sometimes-band Rilo Kiley dating as far back as the band’s 2004 release More Adventurous, even granting her a prominent role singing backup on his latest album, Momofuku. Costello now makes his own appearance—amid a star studded guest list that also includes Black Crowe Chris Robinson, Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward and boyfriend Jonathan Rice, on Lewis’ second non-Rilo Kiley outing—Acid Tongue courtesy of a rousing duet on “Carpetbaggers,” but his presence and influence is felt throughout the entire recording.
Unfortunately, the Elvis Costello that permeates Acid Tongue is not the genius songwriter of classics like This Year’s Model and King of America or even the professional-grade one of All This Useless Beauty and When I Was Cruel. Rather, it is the Elvis Costello of awkward genre detours like Almost Blue and Kojak Variety, the brilliant lyricist and melodic craftsman who continues to force himself upon genres he clearly admires but possesses no innate talent for. Acid Tongue finds Jenny Lewis in a similarly erratic mood, lurching through various roots-rock poses in search of authentication that comes, all too often, at the detriment of her music.
In a way, it makes perfect sense that Lewis would steer towards a more back-to-basics approach at this point in her career. Rabbit Fur Coat, her 2006 collaboration with gospel sisters the Watson Twins, found her dabbling with folk and country with much success, the stripped-down musical settings finding a natural coherence with Lewis’ crystalline vocals and gift for vibrantly detailed narratives. Though arguably meant to whisk Lewis out of the indie ghetto and into more widely acclaimed “singer-songwriter” territory (a career trajectory concurrently being pursued by friend Conor Oberst, who released Rabbit Fur Coat on his Team Love label and played Bob Dylan on the album’s cover of the Traveling Wilbury’s cover “Handle With Care”), Rabbit Fur Coat felt like a logical progression from More Adventurous, the album that saw Lewis’ songwriting making remarkable strides in such a brief time since Rilo Kiley’s quaint indie pop outings.
Lewis followed up Rabbit Fur Coat’s minor triumph by leading Rilo Kiley through last year’s Under the Blacklight, a bizarre failure that cast the singer as a kitten-with-a-whip vixen, vamping through a collection of songs about the sleazy underworld of the L.A. sex trade amidst the band’s suddenly slick, even ostentatious, musical polish. Lewis insists that Rilo Kiley made the record that they had always wanted to, rather than having Under the Blacklight’s hyper-sexual gloss forced out of them by Warner Bros., but none of this made what was on the record sound any less forced or uncomfortable. That Lewis managed to maintain her integrity throughout speaks volumes of her prowess as a vocalist and songwriter, and if the album wound up something less than the catastrophe that it otherwise could have been purely as a result of her presence, its chilly critical reception has left her with, if anything, even more to prove this time around.
As the first album credited entirely to Lewis alone, the strangest thing about Acid Tongue winds up being just how vague it sounds, a snapshot of the artist in search of a coherent identity. We get Jenny Lewis as a blues mama (“The Next Messiah”, “Jack Killed Mom”), a ‘70s soul singer (“Bad Man’s World”), a Feist-esque folkie (“Black Sand”, “Pretty Bird”) and swaggering rock ‘n’ roll bandleader (“Fernando”). What we don’t get nearly enough of is Jenny Lewis the ace pop songstress, the storyteller whose knack for combining savage wit with breathtaking poignancy resonates throughout so much of her previous work. More so than even Under the Blacklight, where Lewis at least seemed willing to play along with material unworthy of her, Acid Tongue too often finds her lyrical talents pushed even further into the background in service of music that sounds like it could belong anywhere.
If Acid Tongue’s lyrical laziness is truly disappointing, it is at least a logical foreground for songs that do not demand the usual level of substance that Lewis provides. “Pretty Bird” and “Bad Man’s World,” in particular, subscribe to the jazz/blues propensity towards repetitive and broadly illustrative lyrical phrasing; the kind where the words are far less important than how they are sung. It is not that Lewis isn’t a lovely vocalist (she’s among my very favorites currently singing in any genre), its just that she can’t sing these songs. Send “Pretty Bird” to Beth Gibbons or “Bad Man’s World” to Bettye LaVette and they might become something; here they are just exhibits in Lewis’ sudden, confused tendency towards overreach.
The nearly nine-minute “The Next Messiah” is even more problematic. Described by Lewis as having been inspired by the song medleys on her mom’s old Barbara Streisand records, the song is actually a trenchant blues-rock stomp in the Led Zeppelin mode. Not only does this suggest a wildly confused convergence of stylistic influences, it provides a handy summation of everything that is flawed about the album’s brand of stylistic schizophrenia. Lewis sounds completely over her head on the song, proving that hers may be a strong but not particularly malleable talent. She does not yet seem ready to participate in music that does not put her voice and her words front and center.
Oddly, though, this is a problem that Acid Tongue itself seems to recognize somewhere around the album’s halfway point, where it suddenly starts behaving like the sequel to Rabbit Fur Coat that it was probably better off being all along. True, “Godspeed” and “Acid Tongue” itself sound every bit as influenced by the gospel leanings that drove her previous solo outing, but Lewis is actually allowed to just sing here, never sounding in losing competition with her surroundings. The graceful finale “Sing a Song”, meanwhile, suggests that Lewis may not have ever needed the Watson Twins to go this route in the first place. “Tryin’ My Best” finds her attempting a full-on Dionne Warwick homage, precisely the kind of genre affectation that sinks so much of the rest of the album, but the entire song is subtle and underplayed enough that it just lets her strong, clear vocals shine, suggesting that if Lewis were to continue on in such a retro fashion that this would be the way to go.
Best of all, though, is that Elvis Costello duet “Carpetbaggers”, which only further proves that Lewis, perhaps true to her acting roots, is at her strongest when given a full-bodied character to play in her songs. Not only is her own performance at its most energetic and convincing here, the song further enlivens Costello in a way that too few of his own recent outings seem to. Ironic, considering that Acid Tongue’s flaws strike me as being particularly Costello-ian in their mistaking reverence for certain musical genres as competence in them, but “Carpetbaggers” suggests that further pairings between the two might just be the thing to goad each of them towards their stronger musical instincts.
Of course, a deeply flawed album that manages to strike gold every now and then can be just as frustrating as an all-out failure, if not even more so. Particularly by front-loading the album with the bulk of its wayward experiments (in fact, swap the title track for the lugubrious “Jack Killed Mom” in the play order and the entire second half of the record makes for a nice little EP), the overall momentum of Acid Tongue is severely stalled by the time the listener approaches the stronger material. There is, however, just enough good here to suggest that the next Jenny Lewis album (and odds are it will be a Jenny Lewis album; her vague statements about the status of Rilo Kiley suggest a long, if not permanent, hiatus) might be something worth looking forward to, even if she appears to be stumbling much more frequently than usual these days.