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She calls it "the hardest one I ever made"; that's Jenny Lewis' assessment of The Voyager, her first solo album since 2008's Acid Tongue. Six long years in which Lewis coped with the break-up of Rilo Kiley, the death of her father, bouts of insomnia and writers' block. Six years dotted with regular black days, extreme grief coupled with complete exhaustion took her to the brink before a spell as part of the briefly-reunited The Postal Service's touring band began a rejuvenation of sorts (Lewis had continued to write during her periods of sleeplessness) that culminated in visiting Ryan Adams' studio and pulling together this, her eighth studio album and third solo record.
Given the background, you might expect The Voyager to be a downbeat experience and while lyrically it's unflinchingly honest, the music shines with positivity and glorious pop songwriting. This album finds Lewis pulling together something of a "greatest hits" of her sound: a mix of the alt.country of Acid Tongue and Rabbit Fur Coat, the rock and roll of Jenny & Johnny's I'm Having Fun Now and the classic overdriven Fleetwood Mac guitar pop that Rilo Kiley did so fantastically during their headily-brilliant peak moments.
"I've been wearing all-black since the day it started" are the first words out of Lewis' mouth on the opening track 'Head Underwater', a wonderful burst of sunny pop that belies her tale of insomnia, hints of experimenting with substance abuse and feeling like she's becoming unknown to those around her. These are dark themes, so the "ooh-oohs" and "ba-ba-bas", along with the weighty piano and scratchy guitar riffs provide balance, and it ends up being probably the sprightliest thing Lewis has put her name to thus far. With 'She's Not Me' we find ourselves in familiar territory, a track that wouldn't be out of place on Rilo Kiley's underrated commercial high water mark Under the Blacklight, channelling once more her inner Stevie Nicks.
Keeping us on our toes, 'Just One of the Guys' is a lolloping country-rock track produced by Beck and featuring his subtly mumbled backing vocals where Lewis sings about feeling unable to fit in and musing on her ticking biological clock: "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." Although it's delivered with Lewis' usual wry humour, it's a remarkably honest and affecting snapshot of something that's clearly troubling the singer. I don't know if it's the switch to having the guest stars behind the console rather than in front of it, but the choice of Ryan Adams as producer appears to have brought the best out of Lewis musically, as well as seemingly making her feel comfortable enough to share her deepest fears with us; it's a combination the pair should give serious thought to repeating.
The joyous moments continue to come thick and fast as you work your way through The Voyager; 'Late Bloomer' is a rollicking ride through Lewis' teenage years, the swoonsome jangle of 'The New You' puts bright clothes on a breakup in the shadow of 9/11 and the exhilarating guitar rush of 'Aloha and the Three Johns' finds Lewis combining the mundanely everyday with a frank dissection of a coupling along the lines of "is this the beginning of our vacation / or is it the end of our relationship?" It's something Lewis has always done well, but this feels like next-level stuff, a crystallisation of everything she's done before, focused and as in control as she's ever been.
That's evidenced by closing track 'The Voyager'; as good as anything as she's ever done it's a string-drenched ballad that indulges in some electronics but strip all that back and what you have is Jenny Lewis and an acoustic guitar musing about death and grief, and coping with those unexpected waves of emotion that crash against you where and when you least expect it: "The voyager's in every boy and girl / if you wanna get to heaven, get out of this world." It might not be as rousing and sing-along as other moments on The Voyager but this is where we truly get to see behind the veneer of the singer and sometime actress. A fitting end, a song addressing everything that's come before and yet to come - and the crowning moment on a near-perfect album.
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