“Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone,” the great travel writer Mary Morris once wrote. “Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream.” She’s describing a necessary ruthlessness: Women are so often defined by their attachments (family, romance, even the fetishes of style) that becoming light enough to move often requires behavior others might read as cruel or, at best, distanced. “Nothing lasts forever when you travel time,” Jenny Lewis sings in a deliberately spacey drawl during the title track of her rich new solo album, The Voyager. The song, with its gentle string crescendos and angelic backing vocals by First Aid Kit, seems at first like a panegyric to the spirit of wanderlust. But Lewis’ version of the Voyager — the NASA craft, currently floating beyond human perception? the only Star Trek ship to be captained by a woman? — goes up in smoke.
Like Lewis’ great 2006 album with The Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat, The Voyager plays the way a short-story collection reads, its disparate narratives united by musical and lyrical undertones. This time, Lewis goes not for country-music references, but for a wider palette that pays tribute to the history of studio rock. She chose to make The Voyager with Ryan Adams as producer because she loved his Pax Am studio, which is tricked out with gear that dates from the 1960s to the present. Lewis and Adams took full advantage; their arrangements move through time without ever getting stuck in one era. “Head Underwater” recalls the New Wave sounds of The Motels and Aimee Mann‘s first band, Til Tuesday; “Slippery Slopes” rides a Tom Petty-worthy chord progression. “You Can’t Outrun ‘Em” cultivates the surf sound Lewis touched on in her duo with Johnathan Rice, Jenny and Johnny. “Love U Forever” steals its opening riff from classic rock’s ultimate studio band, Cream. “Late Bloomer” connects Lewis to her own past; it would fit on her former band Rilo Kiley‘s finest album, More Adventurous.
The Voyager‘s clever (but never too-clever) sound builds an open structure within which the 38-year-old Lewis can explore her current fascination: the weight of full adulthood, and its paradoxical precariousness. Some of her writing is confessional, colorfully describing her fight with chronic insomnia or alluding to the death of her often-absent father and her doubts about marriage and monogamy. “Just One of the Guys,” a collaboration with Beck, is the funniest reflection on anxiety about not having children this side of Sarah Silverman.
But while it’s possible to locate Lewis within the “I” that shares these vignettes, it’s not inevitable. The woman who discards a good-enough lover in “She’s Not Me,” the one coping with a cheater in “Slippery Slopes,” the one trapped with someone she once thought was perfect in “Love You Forever”: They come alive in their imperfections, because Lewis doesn’t try to explain or justify them, or even exactly get the listener to empathize. She observes. She adopts different vocal styles to accommodate her characters, going from a rock growl to the singsong of a little girl to a soulful sound that comes from below her heart. The risk Lewis takes is not confession’s emotionalism, but witnessing’s honesty.
Throughout her writing, Lewis maintains this measured perspective, shored up by her fanatical attention to detail. Like other literary travelers from Joan Didion to Joni Mitchell, she finds the emotional intensity in relationships and scenarios through observations that require a step back, so that she can see the whole room, and that absolute refusal to slip into the generalities of nostalgia. “Forgive me my candor,” she sings as an aside in the middle of “Late Bloomer,” a coming-of-age story about an instantly regretted threesome. But listeners are so lucky to have her candor. Moving forward, Lewis keeps her eye on everything we need to know.