It might seem curious that, up to this point, Jeffrey Lewis has attracted most mainstream attention by way of a collection of covers of a 30-year-old anarcho-punk band. But while on 2007’s 12 Crass Songs the New Yorker set himself the challenge of converting riotous, wrathful indignation and barked punk delivery into sweetly genial folk trickled calmly out in timidly nasal deadpan, he also required of himself a realignment of his musical priorities.
I don’t think it would be an unreasonable assumption to expect that people who buy Lewis’s records and show up to his indefatigable tours are attracted in large part by his lyrical deftness. It’s his propensity for emotional openness delivered with an intellectual but self-deprecatory wit, and imbued with a touch of universality and existentialism, that fashions his allure, as opposed to any instrumental or songwriting flourishes. His re-realisation of Crass’s vitriol, however, asked for a newfound focus on the actual music over Lewis’s wordsmithery, not only because it would be optimistic to expect that (political inclinations aside) Lewis and Crass share a great number of fans, but also to ensure the whole project had some sort of meaning. The final product was variable — “End Result” became a sweetly reasonable celebration of human identity, while “Systematic Death” was just shambolically twee — but for the first time you sensed the words Lewis was saying weren’t granted universal precedence over the way he was saying them.
Fifth album proper ‘Em Are I to an extent continues in this vein. A few of its 11 songs show Lewis settling more comfortably into traditional song structures ahead of linear storytelling, while even the one that most obviously doesn’t (the jazzy, meandering seven-minute prog-noise of “The Upside-Down Cross”) waits three minutes before introducing a vocal that has to compete with shudders of guitar throughout. It’s something of a leap to attribute this newfound focus to the co-credited Junkyard, but, certainly, it’s the full-band sessions (“Slogans”, “Good Old Pig, Gone to Avalon”) on which Lewis’s waspish whine more often takes a breather and allows a riff or solo to push to the fore.
Of course, this is all relative — we are talking about a man who appears to boast superhuman lung capacity and can sputter multisyllabic phrases like “It would make Hell so unhellish” (“Whistle Past”) before the rest of us have even cleared our throats. And so, as ever, Lewis’s idiosyncratic musings are the main attraction here. The neurotic insecurity that we’ve seen laid bare on previous outings remains intact, but on ‘Em Are I is tempered by buds of positivity. The nostalgic “Slogans” looks back on a diffident schoolboy Lewis with a refrain of “I kept repeating it to myself / Until I convinced myself that it was true / That everyone you meet is not better than you”, a retrospective self-scrutiny of the sort that frequently makes Lewis so easy to relate to. The fatalistic “Whistle Past” wraps the uncertainty of afterlife up as a “nice surprise” and even sees an eternity in Hell as offset with the happiness of knowing others are in Heaven, while “Bugs and Flowers” revels in the simplicity and constancy of de-populated nature.
As the latter hints at, however, Lewis’s optimism is inseparably tied to his escapist yearnings. “The sun setting on my youth makes that old shadow get taller / Oh, but it’s all fine as long as the bus makes the city behind me get smaller and smaller”, he bargains on the gorgeously lilting “Roll Bus Roll”, and it’s a bittersweet compromise that re-emerges in various forms across ‘Em Are I. Most often, though, Lewis seems to want to escape himself. “To Be Objectified” is a what-it-says-on-the-tin reverie in which Lewis yearns for the same existential status as a mountainside or building, reasoning “it would be a relief to see I’m just an actual thing”. Similarly, when in “Bugs and Flowers” he explores man’s relationship with nature and concludes humankind, insects, and plants all ultimately and equally collapse into “infinite dust”, you sense Lewis is trying to flee his own incessant reflectiveness. And so again on “Roll Bus Roll”, the physical escape of a Greyhound coach ride is coupled with the intellectual amnesty of sleep. In “If Life Exists(?)”, he recognises that he has “…the choice / To wish things could be better / Or to say things could be worse”, but he also quips that “It’s all easier said than done / And it’s not even easy to say”.
Such is Lewis’s capriciousness that he follows such speculative contemplation with a song about his fondness for a pig. His sense of humour pervades over this record as it has done in the past, but that particular example (“Good Old Pig, Gone to Avalon”) plays like an in-joke into which the listener remains uninvited. It hardly helps matters that the song itself is a twee country-folk jig, complete with wiggling banjo and handclaps, although the guitar freak-out that punctuates it comes to an unexpected partial-rescue. The quaint “Whistle Past” is similarly lively and hardly fares better, spoiled by the incongruous warbles of Lewis’s female backing.
For the most part, however, ‘Em Are I sees Lewis’s idiosyncratic appeal not just present and correct, but polished by well-placed hooks and memorable melodies. Of course, even then, polish isn’t really what we’re here for. When, in “To Be Objectified”, he compares humankind to “empty boats on a river to the sea”, before drolly quavering “I still don’t have a cellphone / But this seashell gets reception / And the ocean won’t stop calling / And I want a restraining order”, Lewis presents a succinct vindication of his continued magnetism. Songwriting advancements or not, Lewis’s talent for expanding the details of personal misfortune into genuinely absorbing commentary on the universal, ever done with a wry smile, will always be his trump card.