When You're Chewing Life's Gristle, Don't Grumble, Give a Whistle
Jeffrey Lewis's wordy, quirky, strangely poignant songs have routinely detailed life's dark clouds, but with an eye on their silver lining. In "The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song," the center-piece of his first (and still best) album, 2001's The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, Lewis spends six whole minutes lamenting a missed romantic/sexual opportunity, before realizing that "all around the world there may be folks singing tunes/about the love of other folks that they barely knew," meaning, logically, "someone somewhere might be singing about you."
Eight years, countless tours, and at least, well, a couple of kissed girls later, Lewis is no longer the awkward, musically-shy figure he cut when first coming out of New York's anti-folk scene. Yet, though his music has grown loud, rockin', and more "accomplished," Lewis's songwriting model is similar: pick an insecurity, explore it, find the optimistic angle.
On his latest longplayer, there's "Whistle Past the Graveyard," a rumination on mortality whose roots could stretch back to his early classic "Life." Here, Lewis takes optimism to near Ned Flanders-esque extremes, singing: "if I was in hell/I'd be happy knowing other people were in heaven/it'd make hell not so hellish."
Heartbreaker, You Got the Best of Me
Taken as whole, 'Em Are I is a kind of silver lining unto itself. The dark cloud is Lewis's break-up with Helen Schreiner, ex-girlfriend and ex-keyboardist. Lewis has previously, publicly chronicled the end of their relationship in his New York Times blog, scrawling a comic called "My 2008 In a Nutshell," that begins with him in love on "the best Valentine's Day ever!" but ends with Lewis a heartbroken zombie, possessor of "a ruined life."
Suitably, 'Em Are I is an ultrasound on Lewis's faltering emotional health, the songsmith self-diagnosing a "Broken Broken Broken Heart." Of course, inevitably, he has to see the glass-half-full; that song finding him singing "thank you pain for teaching me."
Eliminate the Unnecessary So That the Necessary May Speak
Contrasting with his personal problems, Lewis's career is on the grow. Recorded in high-fidelity, stacked with large arrangements, and even sporting a special-guest guitar solo from Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis, 'Em Are I could turn out to be the album that introduces him to a larger audience. Fittingly enough, it's also his least satisfying album; one that foregrounds music over lyrics, even though the latter is Lewis's strongest suit.
With its multi-track'd arrangements and 'rocking-out' vibe, the disc forsakes the simple joys of hearing Lewis's words in their most direct, effective setting. In his own Dylan-goes-electric moment, Lewis has lost a lot of his original charm; his once-fervent desire "to make something that was good because of the simplicity, not in spite of it” gone the way of his past relationship.
Record Label: Rough Trade
Release Date: 19 May 2009