Music Reviews
The Voyager

Jenny Lewis The Voyager

(Warner Bros.) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

As you progress through life, you begin to realise that pop music is a young person’s game. The biggest selling artists are barely out of their teens, the majority of marketing is aimed at schoolchildren, and songs centre on youthful emotions. The first flush of love you think will last forever, uncontrollable lust, having a great time and dancing the night away – in the Top 40, everyone’s about eighteen years old.

It’s perfectly understandable, of course. That sort of age is where your emotions are at their most heightened and everything seems to be happening in piercingly sharp HD. Plus, there’s the fact that no-one particularly wants to listen to songs about filling in a tax return, the slow ascent to middle management or the perils of trying to find a semi-detached house in the catchment area for the best local comprehensive school. For most of us, pop music is escapism and while it increasingly provides the soundtrack to our everyday life, we still want our favourite songs to take us away from the drudgery of it.

But as every writer knows, one of the key tenets of being an author is to write about what you know which, if you’re at the age where you no longer get asked for ID when buying beer, puts many songwriters at odds with the status quo. In her former band, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis firmly stuck to her own experiences, and crafted songs which didn’t pretend to be about anything other than her own life. On a personal note, I bought Rilo Kiley’s third album, More Adventurous, ten years ago, and thought it was great. Jenny Lewis was 28 then, and I was 18. Now I’m 28, More Adventurous has become so prescient and relevant, it’s borderline terrifying.

Rilo Kiley broke up three years ago. In fact, “broke up” may not be the right choice of words. It sounds final and dramatic, whereas Rilo Kiley’s transition into non-existence was more laborious and lengthy, and something of a gradual disintegration. The Voyager is Jenny Lewis’ third solo album, but it’s the first since the dissolution of her erstwhile band, and some of the record focusses in on the transitional period in which she now finds herself as a result. Primarily though, as you’d expect, it’s a deeply personal album reflecting on life, death and relationships, and what it means to be 38.

Or rather, what it means to be 38, unmarried and childless. Politicians forever bleat on about what they are claiming to do for “hard-working families”, thus conveniently ignoring the ever-growing population that don’t fit into that overly convenient straitjacket. This exclusionary attitude has clearly got to Lewis, as the concept of motherhood rears its head on more than one occasion on The Voyager. On She’s Not Me, a song about a former lover moving on and settling down, there’s the regret-filled line: “Heard she’s having your baby / And everything is amazing.” Just One Of The Guys mentions a “little clock inside that keeps ticking,” but more disarming is the moment where the music appears to slow down just in time for Lewis to deliver the simple yet devastating, “There’s only one difference between you and me / When I look at myself all I can see / I’m just another lady without a baby.”

The Voyager isn’t some kind of self-pity party though. Lewis is enjoying the touring, responsibility-light way of life unavailable to those with toddlers and mortgages who spend their Sunday mornings at the hardware store. Late Bloomer is the story of a misspent sojourn in France, where Lewis became besotted with a beguiling woman who was chasing a songwriter. The resulting tryst sounds like a rejected scene from Almost Famous or a unusually middle-class letter to Razzle, but Lewis’ gift for storytelling and keen eye for the minutiae of events means she gets away with something that would likely sound cheap and tiresomely provocative in the hands of most other writers.

So far, there has been no discussion of the music itself, and the reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, Lewis’ lyrics are so well-observed and noteworthy, your interest is immediately drawn to them. Secondly, and less happily, the musical accompaniments are entirely unremarkable. While Rilo Kiley were never the most exciting of bands, there was enough about them to inject a little pizzazz into proceedings. As a solo artist, Lewis’ backing group sound little more than hired hands who are willing to put in an honest shift but will do their damnedest to clock off at 5pm if they can help it.

It’s alt-country, if you want to put a name on it. Competent alt-country, admittedly, but alt-country nonetheless, and the kind of alt-country you’ve heard before, can enjoy, but won’t surprise you or hit you in the gut in the same way Lewis’ lyrics can. There are some beautiful harmonies and backing vocals to tune in to (She’s Not Me is particularly good for this) but the lack of a discernible musical otherness means The Voyager is often little more than merely diverting.

And that’s where The Voyager takes us. It’s an incredibly well-observed, poignant look at what it means to be Jenny Lewis right now, yet lacks the indefinable quality to make it a classic. That’s how it seems right now, anyway. Ask me in a decade when I’m 38, and it could all be very different.