On the easy-going 'Joy'all,' Jenny Lewis defiantly preaches the pursuit of happiness
"I once knew someone who said that he didn't believe in the pursuit of happiness," Jenny Lewis recently said in an interview about Joy'all, her new solo album. "And I thought, wow, how unfortunate." The comment sums up a kind of wry wisdom that seems to characterize Lewis' music: the belief that happiness isn't a given but must be pursued — and that it ought to be, and that naysayers deserve little more energy than a gentle shrug or an eye-roll. The narrators of Lewis' songs — on her previous solo records, but even back in Rilo Kiley, her beloved, early 2000s indie-rock band — often seem to have a preternatural understanding that things change; that life goes on, for better or worse. This comment about the pursuit of happiness is perhaps a more polite version of an idea delivered in "Puppy and a Truck," an early single off Joy'all that contains a sort of thesis statement for the record: "If you feel like giving up," Lewis drawls, "Shut up."
In recent years, critical appraisal of Lewis' new music and her legacy has often focused on this astute quality of her songwriting: Lewis as den mother of millennial emo girls, described by writers as "a wise older sister we could visit on our iPods" or the "elegantly jaded older sister I didn't have." The early Rilo Kiley standout "A Better Son/Daughter" is a piercing portrait of depression that turns, ultimately, into an ode to hope, addressed in the second person: "You'll be a real good listener / You'll be honest, you'll be brave." On "Head Underwater," from her solo 2014 record The Voyager, she's contemplating her "own mortality" but comes around to preach that there's still "sand left in the hourglass." She seems to have fully embraced this posture on Joy'all, her fifth solo release and her first for Blue Note Records. Many of its songs are about love and heartbreak, the challenges of dating in one's 40s, but her kiss-offs and come-ons to ex- and future lovers are laced with zen-like wisdom that lands like guidance for her coven — reminders of how pursuing joy can be its own reward.
"A lot of the songs on the record are kind of on the surface about relationships with other people," Lewis has said, "but really, they're about relationship — the relationship with yourself, the relationship with your higher power." Is she asking a lover to "take a chance / on a little romance" in "Giddy Up," or demonstrating how to psych yourself up? ("I'm not terrified," she clarifies later, "but I'm not not.") On "Balcony," a relationship is ending, and Lewis is nothing but gracious: "Have the ribeye on me / and don't feel bad," she offers, "It's my joy to / feed you." But then she turns philosophical: "It's never gonna be / the way it used to be" — a breakup, or maybe love, or maybe life itself, is "sort of like a test," she warns, of "who can stand themselves the best."
Lewis' catalog proves she can deploy her sweet, crisp, powerful voice in a million ways, equally able to embody heartbreak, weariness, sensuality, desperation, optimism or humor. Here, she wraps it around wisdom so common it's almost cliché: "the essence of life is suffering"; "if it ain't right, it's wrong." For longtime fans of Lewis' storytelling, it can sound like an especially hard-won kind of hopefulness, to hear the same voice that once quietly sang "I do this thing where I think I'm real sick / But I won't go to the doctor to find out about it" or "It must be nice to finish / When you're dead" — and, in more recent years, whose music has persistently cataloged the pressures faced by women who deign to age, to be single, or to be child-free — cheerfully running through "Love Feel"'s list of country love-song platitudes or urging you to "follow your joy."
Lewis wrote many of these songs in Nashville, where she recently bought a home after nearly a lifetime in LA — some in a virtual songwriting workshop led by Beck in early 2021; others she had started on the road, before the pandemic shut everything down. She recorded it in Nashville, too, at the historic RCA Studio A, enlisting the help of the esteemed Americana producer Dave Cobb, best known for working with artists like Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. It all gives an easy-going, country-tinged, singer-songwriter feel to Joy'all. The album's laid-back sound befits this sense of perspective; Lewis' lyrics are more conversational than ever, her delivery warmer, as she relaxes into her status as sage against acoustic guitars and pedal steel. If this embodiment of supreme profundity can sometimes tip into goofiness — the narrator of "Psychos," for example, who is perhaps purposefully cringe ("this s*** is crazy town," Lewis sings earnestly, before dropping a "namaste") — it's only evidence of commitment to the bit and proof of a sense of humor that keeps the record from feeling too self-serious.
More often, Lewis finds ways to balance the far-out wisdom with the reality of life on Earth and her lived experiences. On the title track, her admonition to "follow your joy, y'all" comes only after she sings of how teenage trauma "informed me / it almost destroyed me." In the middle of "Puppy and a Truck," when she proclaims, "I ain't got no kids / I ain't got no roots / I'm an orphan," it's a declaration of autonomy, not of self-pity. Even when she is singing from the depths of heartbreak or weariness, she isn't weighted down by bitterness. On "Apples and Oranges," she's found a new lover but yearns for an old one ("He's hot and he's cool / he just isn't you," she admits) but ends the song with a sigh: "Isn't love gorgeous?" If you can't see that, even through the heartache, she seems to say ... well, how unfortunate.
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