I’ve often imagined what it would be like to try to romance Jenny Lewis—she’d rope me in with her coy, unbridled sexiness, and I’d lap it up, completely enamored by her charm and dazzling talent. Soon, though, she’d become totally insufferable, acting all crazy, making me go to outrageous lengths to please her and, despite my efforts, she’d never be quite satisfied. She’d act entitled, and say I never cared about her. We’d scream at each other, and she’d lock herself in the bathroom, not to emerge for hours, while I’d whisper that I was sorry through the locked door, torturing myself over what I’d done to make her so unhappy. Though I’d realize how unreasonable she was, I’d continue to be hopelessly in love with her, and would subsequently ruin my life as she’d lead me down a dark, slippery slope toward lifelong misery.
In a way, listening to Lewis’ new album, Acid Tongue, is akin to this imaginary experience I’ve described (which, by the way, is based on nothing other than her persona on record and at shows, and from an anecdote a friend of mine told me about her from when he booked Rilo Kiley to play a show at Middlebury a few years back. Anyway…). Overall, the record’s great—fun, energetic, lively, rootsy, full of catchy songs, beautiful harmonies, and a languid, restless, seventies country-pop vibe that echoes her first solo release, 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat. The dark, dysfunctional side to Lewis’ songwriting remains intact here as well, as several of the songs’ protagonists are quite downtrodden and unseemly. After only a few listens, I can definitively say the album is stuck in my head, and I have no doubt it’ll be an iPod staple over the coming fall months.
BUT- stylistically, the record is pretty unoriginal. Lewis does her fair share of style-hopping on Acid Tongue, and it’s difficult to discern whether you’re enjoying the record because of Lewis’ prowess as a songwriter, or because the writing is more of a homage to classic pop, country and R&B than it is an exploration of new musical ground. That said, it’s fitting that she’s brought in so many staples of recent popular music—Elvis Costello, Chris Robinson, M. Ward, to name a few—to help round out the sound on this album. Costello, who’s been known to veer in drastically different musical directions himself (Almost Blue, North, The Juliet Letters, and that album with Burt Bacharach were all fairly jarring departures from classic Costello fare), sounds especially at home with Lewis on “Carpetbaggers”—two troubadours with a like-minded affinity for pan-genre exploration. Like Costello in his more experimental work, Lewis wears her influences on her sleeve, and the experience of listening to Acid Tongue is as much about digging her tunes as it is a nostalgic trip into the annals of the pop music of days gone by.
Lewis is a straightforward songsmith, utilizing simple chord progressions and melodies as the building blocks for her tunes. She’s ultimately successful, though, by exuding an effortless confidence and, yes, striking sexiness that shines through on almost every track. The result is nothing short of mesmerizing. While her songs are indeed a delight to listen to, I can’t help but wonder if I give her more leeway when she offers up pseudo-facsimiles of classic pop motifs than I would, say, a dude with a big beard from Maine. Even when I can hear her going too far—being too audacious, making a trite lyrical choice or a hackneyed chord progression—the bravado with which she carries herself on record is maddeningly alluring. And I know I’m being manipulated, but Lewis is just too fine. What can you do? Just as she would manhandle me if we ever dated, Jenny Lewis has me effortlessly wrapped around her finger, and despite Acid Tongue’s shortcomings, I cannot not listen to it. She really is quite something.