Is there no limit to Jenny Lewis’ charm?
As front woman of indie-rock stalwarts Rilo Kiley, Lewis has infused each album with her distinctive persona, and in 2006 she and the Watson Twins released Rabbit Fur Coat, a terrific collection of songs that favored Americana-tinged fairy tales over the takeoffs and landings of her usual rock and roll. Now, we finally have Acid Tongue, the first officially solo album from Ms. Lewis, and it’s one of her greatest achievements to date.
As she did on Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis assumes the role of storyteller, weaving an intricate tapestry of characters who run the gamut from cocktail waitress to messiah. Over the course of Acid Tongue, she enlists the aid of a rogue’s gallery of guest stars that includes Elvis Costello, Zooey Deschanel, collaborator/boyfriend Jonathan Rice, M. Ward, and even members of her own family, but the spotlight is never averted from Jenny herself.
Lewis matures with each album she releases, and this one is no exception. Her inimitable vocals have never sounded this commanding or warm, drawing us into each of Acid Tongue’s twelve tracks with confidence and care. Whether heralding the approach of “The Next Messiah,” lamenting living in a “Bad Man’s World,” or advising you to “See Fernando” for whatever your heart desires, Lewis is a captivating guide through the world of her imagination.
Few musicians can tug on the heartstrings the way Lewis can. “Acid Tongue”, the album’s title track, is a somber, moving affair, with Lewis’ backing band serving as a choir to augment her mournful lead vocal. “You know I am a liar,” she confesses during the song’s chorus, “nobody helps a liar.” The song is a perfect example of Lewis’ talent for expressing a vulnerability that is as fetching as it is heartbreaking.
She’s also equally skilled with the upbeat, energetic songs. On “Carpetbagger”, she promises “I’m gonna treat you kind / I’m gonna rob you blind” as Elvis Costello joins her in a blazing duet. And if Lewis spends most of the album building a church in which to preach, she burns it down to the ground with “Jack Killed Mom”. Starting as another tongue-in-cheek fable, the song eventually erupts into a full-fledged tent revival, with Lewis playing the part of matricidal evangelist.
Though it is forty-eight minutes in length, Acid Tongue moves along so briskly and confidently that it feels like half that length. The gospel dynamic between her and the Watson Twins that helped make Rabbit Fur Coat so great can be easy to miss at times, as can that album’s hushed brand of intimacy, but these quibbles can’t distract from what has been accomplished here. Now on a par with fellow red-haired indie-folk auteur Neko Case, Lewis has finally announced her presence as not just a good singer-songwriter, but a great one. And if her trend of making each release better than her last continues, we’ve got a lot to look forward to, because Jenny Lewis is just getting warmed up.