Sure, I could say Jenny Lewis tends to shove awkward, long-winded phrases into ill-fitting melodies on The Voyager. I could point out how her quavering vocals are occasionally overbearing. I might even complain about the sleep-inducing, half-hearted lead guitar parts played by producer Ryan Adams. But that would betray the bravery of what Lewis achieves on her third solo album.
It’s reinvention on a grand scale. It’s also an exercise in contradictions, full of cheery glam-pop gems set to her harshest lyrics yet. From the first sample of reversed singing that kicks off The Voyager, Lewis and Adams create a lush and spacious atmosphere. All the glittery keyboards, groovy guitars and fat basslines complement rather than distract from Jenny’s frank, confessional storytelling.
Early highlight “She’s Not Me” features a fabulous string arrangement and mid-tempo beat ripped straight from a Bee Gees track, all the better to accompany this tried-and-true tale of heartbreak. The song’s stunning bridge section is loaded with drama, disclosing Jenny’s role in the discord:
“Remember the night I destroyed it all?
When I told you I cheated
And you punched through the drywall
I took you for granted
When you were all that I needed”
Staccato stabs accent the phrases “told you”, “punched through”, “took you” and “all that”; the effect lends further beauty and power to the tense revelation.
Elsewhere, on the Beck-produced first single “Just One of the Guys”, Lewis makes a strong statement on aging and the conflict of career vs. family, a consistent theme across The Voyager. The chorus has one heck of a melody, swaying back and forth in a lackadaisical, disquieting calm before the restrained bridge section breaks through. “There’s only one difference between you & me: When I look at myself all I can see, I’m just another lady without a baby,” she murmurs, giving an odd self-assurance to the wordless sing-along that follows.
Part of what makes this album a fascinating listen is her quirky sense of humor. Frank, occasionally off-putting statements are blanketed by sweet arrangements and bouncy melodies. The breezy country-pop number “The New You” is chock-full of clever one-liners and endearing rhyme schemes:
“And you struggle with sobriety, dreams of notoriety
Listening to Kill ‘Em All
Tend for high society, social anxiety
We missed you at the Headbanger’s Ball”
She addresses the prospect of marriage with similar irreverence on “Aloha & the Three Johns”, quipping “And if there’s no ring, I will have to say goodbye…nah, I’m just playing John, I look terrible in white.” Jenny sprinkles such rich details all throughout The Voyager, and by the time the somber title track brings the album to a close, it feels as if we’ve spent scores of weary-eyed moments with the singer-songwriter.
My main issue with this record, then, is an unfortunate pattern of strong hooks hampered by heavy-handed verbosity. Take “Slippery Slopes”, a charming slow-burner with a rockin’ chorus. Jenny’s phrasing on the verses, however, just doesn’t sound natural. As on several songs here, she sticks to the winning melody almost too closely at the expense of craft. It’s a surprising oversight considering the album’s five-year development period, but a tolerable deficiency of this otherwise excellent release.
It’s rare to hear an artist reach a definitive conclusion on her album’s first track, yet Lewis nails it on “Head Underwater”: “There’s a little bit of magic, everybody has it,” she coos. “There’s a little bit of sand left in the hourglass.” After listening to The Voyager, it seems Jenny Lewis has plenty of magic left to lend us.