“Just One Of The Guys”
by Chad Jewett
In some ways, we can understand the difficult, uneven path of Jenny Lewis’s solo work in the context of several of her peers. Most saliently, Lewis’s post-Rilo Kiley work resembles that of Ben Gibbard and Conor Oberst, fellow mid-2000s indie-rock trendsetters and songwriters of considerable gifts whose exodus from their day jobs (Death Cab and Bright Eyes respectively) let out onto a path through classic rock troubadour archetypes and album concepts that were more interesting in theory than in execution. While Rabbit Fur Coat (notably recorded while Rilo Kiley was still a going concern) was a good to great album, one that expanded on the bitter, weary self-exploration to be found on The Execution of All Things, Acid Tongue felt like undercooked songs filtered through a pawnshop worth of 70s Rolling Stone magazine covers. Jenny and Johnny, Lewis’s breezy guitar-pop side-project with partner Jonathan Rice felt even less committed. Few songwriters of her generation had quite the grasp on making complex narratives effortless catchy that Jenny Lewis did and does; but instead of sounding effortless, I’m Having Fun Now sounded joyless and penciled-in, an odd contrast to the record’s title.
“Just One Of The Guys,” our first listen from Lewis’s third solo album, The Voyager, still has some of that circa-1974 dust on it, but nevertheless finds its home in the former Rilo Kiley singer’s foremost gifts. The song’s melody is one of Lewis’s strongest in years (despite a nagging similarity to Fastball’s “Out of My Head”), and the track’s specificity, its focus on painting a picture for Lewis to own instead of ink by numbers, is a relief coming from a songwriter who, at her best, can draw tears with ten words or less (give “A Man/Me/Then Jim” a listen if you don’t believe me). “Just One Of The Guys”, which offers a trenchant exploration of the rock-and-a-hard-place gender expectations with which artists like Jenny Lewis end up struggling, finds Lewis returning to what she does best – telling us something about her world, and making it feel achingly tangible. Indeed, the song’s finest lyrical moment doubles as one of Lewis’s finest: “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.” All of a sudden it becomes clear what’s been missing – that economy, that clarity, that memorable grasp on making words do something sneakily complex and casually poignant.
The song’s production offers similar hope going forward, abandoning the history project retroisms of Acid Tongue for something more expansive, more casually modern. The saloon piano and big-gesture acoustic strums remain, but now they’re haloed in the Technicolor accouterments that made More Adventurous one of the three or four best indie rock albums of the 2000s. Studio haze clouds the song’s borders, guitar-lined falsetto’s filigree the chorus (a signature move that Lewis could go to again and again with complaint from no one), vocal effects and tinkling glockenspiel candy the song’s fantastic bridge (quoted above). If Lewis will seemingly always hold some affection for the druggy bloat of Nixon/Carter-era Laurel Canyon, there is at least a brightside in the way she defamiliarizes all of that “Rock & Roll Hall of Fame” mustiness with the more modern sounds that she and Blake Sennett have helped to turn into modern classicism. Like “Completely Not Me,” her excellent contribution to the Girls Season 3 soundtrack, “Just One Of The Guys” manages to lie across several decades without getting mired in any one of them.
Ultimately, Lewis, like Oberst and Gibbard, set the standard for modern indie rock lyricism by giving us some sort of graspable version of her interiority (even if might be fabricated). Indeed, Jenny Lewis was frequently the most interesting of the three because she had the best grasp on the post-modernism of confessional poetry and the entertainment industry, always being charmingly transparent about being wholly opaque. You were never sure with Lewis if you were looking at clear glass or a hall of mirrors; yet the Rilo Kiley frontwoman had a gift for gleaning truths, even out of non-facts. By the time we got Plans or Digital Ash or More Adventurous, we had a wonderfully clear sense of these artists’ ways of seeing, their value systems, their ways of dissecting fraught emotions, insecurities, and relationships with place (the Northwest, the Midwest, the Golden West). Gibbard has largely fallen silent outside of a ponderous, fitfully tuneful solo album. Oberst seems more or less content to be even more diffuse and general than Neil Young at his most middle-of-the-road, still able to offer amazing turns of phrase, but now shaped to a blunt object instead of a honed scalpel, as far away from the bitter truths of Lifted as possible. Lewis appears to be finding a way to make a remarkably varied and rich fifteen years of art into something like a center of gravity, pulling threads that lead to Acid Tongue and Take Offs and Landings and I’m Having Fun Now and tying them into a knot. “Just One Of The Guys,” for all its continued infatuation with the relics of the past that have always held Jenny Lewis in thrall, also finds the singer looking ahead, and seemingly, trying to find where she fits in all of this.