Saturday, January 20, 2007

“You Are What You Love” / Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins

Jenny Lewis has one of those little-girl voices, like Jill Sobule, that’s deceptive – when you listen to the words of her songs there’s nothing little-girly about her at all. In fact, she’s downright snarky and dangerous. What’s most dangerous about Jenny Lewis is that men don’t fool her, and she doesn’t fool herself. There’s nothing scarier in the realm of love than a woman with no illusions. Am I right, guys?

This track is from Jenny’s 2006 album, Rabbit Fur Coat (her first solo album after leaving the band Rilo Kiley), and it’s full of wry, sharp, I-know-who-I-am-by-now songs. Like Billy Bragg in yesterday’s song, she’s playing with metaphors, but she’s got a whole grabbag of them, anything that could be called an “illusion”: ghosts, mirrors, art forgery, a woman being sawed in half, a rabbit pulled from a hat.

She hustles smartly through the lyrics, not bothering even with rhyme, as if she’s got too much to say to dress it up. And sure, the beat is brisk and cheery, with a snappy drumbeat and sparkly electric piano and lulling guitar strums, but that’s an illusion too: Throughout the song she describes nothing but a relationship in crisis. She’s looking for “invisible reasons to fall out of love and run screaming from our home”; “More and more we’re suffering / Not nobody, not a thousand beers / Will keep us from feeling all alone”; she refers to the “heart attacks I’m convinced I have / Every morning upon waking” -- none of this looks good.

The echo-chamber effect gives her voice a chilling sort of hollowness, despite its whispery girlish intimacy. And sure, she’s on the doorstep, begging to be taken back, she’s hashing things out for hours on the phone, but she’ll coolly admit she’s an expert liar – “I’m fraudulent, a thief at best / A coward who paints a bullshit canvas.” Late in the song, she softly sneaks in her partner’s name – “Tim” – as if she’s past caring about changing names to protect the innocent.

All of which brings us down to the refrain of this song, which is like a Zen koan, with more layers of truth than an onion: “You are what you love / Not what loves you back.” Amazing, what that has to say about the human heart’s infinite capacity for yearning and self-deception. It makes me think of the Mamas and the Papas (who’ve been on my mind all day, since reading Denny Doherty’s obit this morning) -- Cass loved Denny, but Denny loved Michelle, who was married to John, and nobody was happy. What’s even worse is how we hang in there, trying to force the person we love into somebody who will love us back, and refusing to surrender to the person who does love us.

So why does this song make me grin and feel charged up? Maybe it’s because it’s so refreshing to finally hear someone call a spade a spade, and not try to pretend that things are any different than they are. “I’m in love with tricks,” Jenny admits at the end of the song, “So pull another rabbit out of your hat.” We all know there’s no rabbit in that hat, but still we stare at the stage, hoping the magician will pull it off. Even the girl with no illusions.


Jeff said...

Thanks (I think) for informing me of one more album I should check out. I had a chance a year ago to catch Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins, along with Whispertown, here in Milwaukee. I couldn't make it, but heard good things about the show and vowed to check her out. I now really, REALLY will! :-)

Ton said...

Rabbit Fur Coat is one of my fave albums of 2006. I saw Jenny once, with Rilo Kiley: she's an incredibly talented singer/songwriter. The fact that Conor Oberst was vital to the release of the album says a lot really. Anyway: I wanted to mention that Jenny didn't leave Rilo Kiley. This was just a sideproject. Rilo's in the studio right now to record a new album (or they just did, I'm not entirely sure). Looking forward to that!

Holly A Hughes said...

That's good to know Rilo Kiley is still going strong, Ton -- thanks for the info.