Jenny Lewis: “Acid Tongue”
The first time we heard from Jenny Lewis in 2008, she was singing harmony vocals for Elvis Costello on his Momofuku album, a favor that he returns on Lewis’ own Acid Tongue, on which Costello stops by to provide a duet vocal on one song. But one suspects, of course, that Costello isn’t doing it just to be nice; after the way he publicly heaped praise on Lewis’ debut album, Rabbit Fur Coat, one imagines that the man considers it a real treat to be able to share the same studio space as her. And she probably feels much the same way– after all, who else if not Jenny Lewis can claim to be Costello’s greatest protegee, as the gradual unfolding of her career has revealed more than a few shared traits with the former Declan McManus, including the same knack for melody, the same stylistic restlessness, and the same penchant for wordiness.
Those aren’t always positive traits, of course, especially for Lewis, who doesn’t share Costello’s encyclopedic knowledge of music, which means that some of her albums give the impression that she’s trying too hard, such as her the so-so recent effort from her band Rilo Kiley, Under the Black Light, which feels like an overly studied attempt at funk, and even Rabbit Fur Coat, which, despite being very good, did sometimes feel too affected, as if Lewis was trying to dress up her wordy, hipster indie pop in country-rock clothes. But then, some of these complaints can also be leveled against some of Costello’s own weaker efforts, which is why it’s a delight to learn that his Momofuku and her Acid Tongue were born out of the same studio sessions. And if the former album afforded Costello a chance to simply be Costello, turning in one of his most unassuming and wonderful sets of songs in some time, the latter provides Lewis with a chance to finally shake off her indie persona and get carried along by the roots music she obviously loves, and to show off her prowess as a a record-maker, a singer, and a songwriter in the process.
And so, filled with special guests– Costello and his Imposters, Zooey Deschanel on harmony vocals, Benji Hughes, the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson– and bursting with warmth and spontaneity, Acid Tongue is an absolutely tremendous album, one that finds Lewis shedding her excesses and tightening up her craft for a set that’s thrilling, even riveting, and doesn’t sacrifice any of her originality or personality. Indeed, one of the great triumphs of the record is the way in which Lewis dives into familiar idioms– these songs are all in a rich country-rock vein, with some liberal doses of gospel, blues, and singer-songwriter pop– but still comes out with what is undeniably a Jenny Lewis album. Make no mistake, this is the same woman who oozed smarts and sexuality on all of Rilo Kiley’s albums and who has made a name for herself in large part due to her devlishly clever (if sometimes clunky) wordplay and her explorations of love, sex, religion, and politics. But here, for the first time, she know longer sounds like she’s trying to be clever, or pretending to be something she’s not; rather, this is a wonderfully open-hearted and soulful recording, one that feels like it came from the heart more than the head, one that’s devoid of pretense of artifice and simply feels like a big, friendly jam session.
And that’s really what it is– there’s a wonderfully low-key vibe to the whole thing that makes it feel very warm and inviting. Lewis doesn’t have any problem stretching out for a nine-minute, guitar-rock jam (“The Next Messiah”), or letting loose for a rip-roaring duet with Costello (“Carpetbaggers”), or allowing “Jack Killed Mom” to culminate in an oddball gospel rave. She’s equally comfortable channeling Elton John in the haunting, quiet opening number, the chamber-pop “Black Sand,” or bringing in her band of background singer to add soulful harmonies to the gospel-flavored title track and the graceful closing number, “Sing a Song for Them.”
It’s an album that’s full of weird detours and wonderful songs, but it all seems to unfold very organically– the sign of an immensely personal but immaculately crafted album from a first-rate record maker. And there’s no doubt that Lewis is in control here, putting her stamp on everything even as she maintains a generous, inviting atmosphere and bringing in so many great guest musicians. She masterfully teases the listener into the album with a pair of coy, seductive opening numbers before hammering three separate songs into one electrifying, storming rock song, “The Next Messiah.” She keeps a straight face but also a sense of humor as she and her band bang and thump through the weird fable of “Jack Killed Mom,” which sounds for all the world like the best White Stripes song you’ve never heard before. And throughout the whole thing, Lewis is in fine voice, as a singer as well as a writer, capturing a wide array of emotions with equal parts melancholy, rage, and good humor.
The indie hipster set, of course, will likely fret about Lewis sacrificing the sexiness and smarts that have marked her songwriting in the past, but nothing could be further from the truth; sure, she’s ditched her wordiness and her overt cleverness, but that’s just because she’s tightened up the songwriting, and she exudes even more intelligence and sensuality now that she doesn’t sound like she’s trying so hard. And though she excels at elusive, slippery metaphors, as on opener “Black Sand,” she’s at her best when she’s crafting short stories and character sketches, which are personal but also universal. Lewis isn’t much for navel-gazing or confessional poetry– rather, she pays cheeky homage to her father in the epic workout “The Next Messiah,” a nasty piece of work about a master bullshitter, and she opens up about the life of an artist in some strange and startling ways on the title track. These songs are all tightly-wound, marked by an economy of language and a knack for imagery and cadence; and, if all else fails, some of these songs could probably coast by on their sheer locomotive energy (“Carpetbagger”). Though it all, Lewis shows that she’s clearly learned at the feet of absurdist-era Bob Dylan: She can write songs that are born out of her own life, but she makes them sound like weird fever dreams or impressionistic non-sequiters.
Or to say all that another way: This is an album that only Lewis could have made. It bears the stamp of its auteur on every note, even as guests file in and out– this is a Jenny Lewis album through and through, as masterfully crafted as it is lived-in, risky, and personal. And it’s certainly a signal that Lewis is no longer just the young, female, indie-rock version of Elvis Costello; if this rollicking country-rock masterpiece proves anything, it’s that Jenny Lewis has come into her own, making an album that mines familiar influences but doing it her way, as no one else could.