I have a feeling I would have really disliked The Voyager had it arrived ten years earlier. My basis for this is my dwindling appreciation of the music of Rilo Kiley as they got more polished and poppy on More Adventurous (2004) and especially Under the Blacklight (2007). A fervent fan of the depressive, indie heartache of the band’s 2002 breakthrough, The Execution of All Things, I found the excursion into poppier fare — it sometimes sounded like they were taking a stab at inventing a new form of lo-fi disco — to be unappealing. I don’t believe I ever cried, “Sell out!” but that was probably echoing around my heart somewhere. I don’t necessarily feel compelled to spend a lot of time backtracking to reevaluate those albums, but The Voyager confirms that the later efforts were closer to the sensibility Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis actively wanted to pursue. And the new album also makes a pretty solid argument that the evolution was worthwhile, even if that evolution was more with my ears than Lewis’s music. It wasn’t you, Jenny. It was me.
Produced by Ryan Adams, who’s been sporadically pursuing exactly this sort of genially high-gloss on his solo albums since at least Gold, Lewis’s third solo turn (counting the credited collaboration with the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat, as her debut) is positioned for a version of modern pop radio that’s better than the one we’re actually stuck with. The songs are tight, wise, glistening, and emotionally resonant. They mix salty and sweet as artfully as the star menu item of any acclaimed chef. Lewis remains as downbeat and lovelorn as ever, but the most dour sentiments are couched in deliriously addictive pop settings. It has some of thrilling embrace of smart studio craftsmanship that made Haim’s Days Are Gone so satisfying last year, although the throwback quality of that album is almost entirely absent. Lewis has her influences and inspires some useful, telling comparisons (with this material, she could trade songs on stage with Neko Case and have a fair shot of emerging with a split decision), but the record comes across as a pure expression of self instead of an echo of what others have done and said before.
The personal nature of Lewis’s music invites a lot of extra examination. There are a slew of fans who’ve been excitedly puzzling out the conspicuously highlighted lyrics on lead single “Just One of the Guys”: “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.” Added clues are found elsewhere on the album, notably on the wistful track “She’s Not Me,” on which Lewis sings, “I used to think you could save me/ I’ve been wandering lately/ Heard she’s having your baby/ And everything’s so amazing.” Elsewhere, Lewis references the bouts of sleeplessness that helped contribute to the six year gap between solo efforts and other travails. And yet there’s a sense of hope that mirrors the more buoyant music. No matter how bad it gets, the note of slender positivity Lewis sounds on “Head Underwater” might be Lewis’s new thesis. When she sings, “There’s a little bit of magic/ Everybody has it/ There’s a little bit of sand left in the hourglass,” it’s it own reiteration of the value of Lewis’s musical journey. She’s not content to stand pat when the opportunity to move forward, one way or another, is right in front of her.