I’ve seen Jenny Lewis three times on her ongoing Voyager tour, which just ended its U.S. run after nearly a year and a half—in New York in June 2014, in Denver in December 2014, and in Boulder just two weeks ago—and a few constants have been true each time. 1) She’s opened with the Rilo Kiley track “Silver Lining,” from 2007’s Under the Blacklight, a song which I’ve always heard as an announcement of her presence as a successful solo artist (“I was your silver lining/but now I’m gold”), even though it was performed and released with her band, and which therefore seems like a fitting entrance. 2) She’s closed her encore with the heart-wrenching harmonies of “Acid Tongue,” the title track from her 2008 solo record, in a performance that evokes both a gospel and a campfire, with members of her backing band gathered around the microphone. 3) She’s worn a flawless, now iconic rainbow-painted pants suit that is part rock god and part Lisa Frank. And 4) I’ve walked away with tear-stained cheeks after cathartically crying my eyes out.
Some critics could say that these recurring aspects make the tour predictable, and they wouldn’t quite be wrong—and yet, even the most formulaic and expected parts of the performance don’t fail to deliver an impact. By the second go-around, I knew what note I could expect to leave on, but this only made it feel all the more necessary. While there’s certainly merit in switching up what you play each night on tour, there’s also something to said of a well-orchestrated, purposeful set list—and that is what Lewis delivers. She knows exactly how and when to strike a chord with her audience.
Last year, when “The Voyager” was released and Lewis was suddenly back in the public eye, there seemed to be a surge of writing about her work as a solo artist and with the band Rilo Kiley since the early aughts. Did this music still matter, enough for Lewis to come back on a successful solo tour? Could her words still resonate, still pack indie venues with crowds singing along?
The answer suggested by the reception of the album and the length of the tour is a resounding yes. At the Fox Theater in Boulder, CO two weeks ago—on the weekend before the start of classes in a largely college-oriented town, where at 24 I often feel like one of the oldest people in any given space—every voice in the crowd seemed to know every word, to Lewis’s solo songs and especially to the Rilo Kiley classics. Fans, like me, who discovered her in our teenage basements as the Rilo Kiley singer crooning about the small and large tragedies of young adulthood, have followed her adoringly ever since; but new waves of young people have also found her and found in her something they can fundamentally relate to—something that, still, helps them make sense of themselves.
Prior to the Boulder show, Lewis spoke to a reporter for the Boulder Weekly about the effect she’s been said to have on her audiences. “I’ve heard through the years, particularly with women, that some of the songs are markers in a way. And it’s weird, as I grow up and my audience grows up, how scenes shift. You can see it affecting a different generation of women in the audience. It’s really cool when that happens,” she said.
In a #RealLife feature last summer at Consequence of Sound, Randall Colburn talks about the first time he heard a Rilo Kiley song, as an underemployed and newly single college graduate suffering from insomnia. “Jenny Lewis’s worst lyrics saved my life that summer,” he writes. “That’s how good she is. Her best lyrics saved it countless times after that.” This sentiment, along with countless others expressed in the mini-memoirs that make up the feature, gets at why this music—why any music—matters. It exemplifies the effect that a song can have on someone. It saved his life. Maybe that sounds cliché or overstated, but in a lot of ways it fits. Lewis’s lyrics often seem to save her own life, as she openly wrestles with mortality, with depression, with religion, and with basic aspects of early adulthood like “getting up for work early, and paying my bills.” “A Better Son/Daughter,” off the band’s second album, 2001’s “The Execution of All Things,” has been cited by tons of young people on the internet (including Anne Hathaway) as the song which brought them back from the brink. And when Lewis performs that song today—and she does, at every show—to packed halls of people who have loved her—have grown up with her—since its release, you can feel that energy in the crowd that sings along. This music saved our lives. When she closed her regular set at the Fox with this anthem, when she began to play its opening with an efficacious force as giant balloons flew over the crowd and the upbeat retro-pop-rock energy of “Love U Forever” faded into this ultimate cathartic release, when my tear ducts burst open at the sound of the first few chords and continued to rain until the band left the stage, I knew—this music, this artist, saved my life. And I knew, looking around at the other fans, and especially at the other young women in that theater with me, in a town where I’ve never felt particularly akin to my neighbors, that I was among a community of people who felt the same.
The incredible value of a thing like a favorite song is rooted in part in the personal—in memories of moments when it came through your headphones, in your mind’s shaping of your own experiences through the lyrics—but I suspect, in larger part, in the communal—in the way that it feels to share such feelings with someone, anyone else.
Jenny’s music saved our lives because it helped us find each other—it came through our speakers and proved to us that there was someone else out there hurting and experiencing in the same ways that we were. There is someone up on that stage, someone’s voice on that record expressing the pain that we feel—even if it is sometimes the pain of teenage years, even it if is a pain that has passed, or that we’ve learned to process. It lets us know that we aren’t alone in it, and in that recognition we find compassion, community, catharsis. What can music do that’s more powerful than that?
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