Jenny Lewis
Photo: Bobbi Rich / Nasty Little Man

Jenny Lewis Lets Loose on Excellent, Raw ‘Joy’all’

Jenny Lewis has never sounded like she’s had more fun making music than she does on Joy’all. It’s haunting, inspiring, and uniquely complicated.

Jenny Lewis
Blue Note / Capitol
9 June 2023

Jenny Lewis has never sounded like she’s had more fun making music than she does on her fifth solo album, Joy’all. That even includes the lines about being in her 40s “kicking her ass” and an acute longing that wanders into scenes almost harmlessly, if not poignantly, throughout the set. Take the sass, sadness, or serenity away, and these are simple songs with a subliminal spunk that very few other songstresses can perfect as well as Lewis does here.

The mood is quick and to the point. Coming in at ten songs and a pinch over a half hour, this collection is the perfect novella. It’s impossible to overstay its welcome due to its brevity, yet so rich with wit, honesty, and story that it’s hard not to crave more. The production helps; above all else, the set feels like a Pro Tools-free zone. In a world where AI is ramping up more severe threats to humanmade art than ever, this collection’s stripped-down, living room feel isn’t just a novelty; it’s a breath of fresh air.

Take the title track, led by a percussive upbeat shuffle given an added texture via some sugary handclaps that lead the song forward. Lewis is mildly subdued in her delivery throughout the verses but raises her tone slightly as the track gets to the hook, and she asserts, “Follow your joy all / I’m not a toy, y’all, I got heart.” Throw in a healthy helping of falsetto “woooo’s”, and you have a song that could fit on something like Paul Simon‘s Stranger to Stranger.

That tune comes smack in the middle of maybe Lewis’s best 1-2-3 punch to begin an album, Rilo Kiley or not. The artisan bread completing the sandwich comes in the form of singles “Psychos” and “Puppy and a Truck”, the latter of which seems to be getting its share of attention, if only because of that whole “40s kicking her ass” line. It almost feels like her admissions here are backed by the kind of grins that suggest she’s on the other side of life’s darker moments. Considering how it’s relayed on top of a laid-back, sun-kissed groove, it’s no wonder she’s buds with Jimmy Buffet.

The former, meanwhile, feels like an outtake from Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumours. Even Lewis leans into a Stevie Nicks vocal aesthetic that, at first glance, feels remarkably uncanny. Sure, the singer moved to Nashville a handful of years ago after spending the bulk of her life in California but rarely has she embodied the soft rock ethos that once made the Golden State an imperative destination for singer-songwriters. It recalls a time when bell bottoms and big hats weren’t merely a fashion statement; they were a movement.

Speaking of moving, “Essence of Life” is a moody waltz punctuated by drummer Nate Smith’s intricate pop-jazz influence. It’s a standout because of his playing and Lewis’ ominously sparse vocal approach. “Cherry Baby” is nearly the antithesis of that, but dance-worthy, nonetheless. As sugary as it gets, the song is the most radio-ready on Joy’all. It’s also the one that would probably fit the best on Haim’s revelatory 2013 debut “Days Are Gone”. Everyone knew Lewis had the funk in her; nobody could have predicted it would feel this easy this deep into the game.

But that’s why Joy’all is such a pleasant listen. It’s Jenny Lewis, holed up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, enrolling in a virtual musician boot camp led by Beck and supposedly finding herself in a Publix parking lot, agonizing over the final line she wrote for the record, which ultimately lands on “Cherry Baby”. She puts a bow on the whole thing perfectly: “I’m having a hard time,” she admits, “writing the last line.” It’s breezy and easy and almost patronizing in its flippancy.

It’s also the most accurate way to sum up the record on which it resides. Because on Joy’all, Jenny Lewis has never sounded like she has cared less. The result is a record that all walks of fans may end up caring about the most. It adds up to a push and pull that makes for an inescapable listen, equally haunting and inspiring, consistently fun, and uniquely complicated.

“How do you say goodbye forever?” she asks on the heartbreaking finale, “Chain of Tears”, before reminding everyone how raw, personal, and painful these songs can be. But then, unlike some of her contemporaries who might overthink the landing after uttering such a powerful phrase, she nails it in the plainest way possible. “Sincerely asking advice.” Here’s some: More of this, please.

RATING 8 / 10