Guitar fuzz blurs into the sound of a dial tone that’s sustained for 20 seconds, requiring listeners of the text-message era to, for once, hear and feel and think about what it means to be disconnected. So ends the title track of Jenny Lewis’s On the Line, and the trick says a lot about this terrific album by one of this millennium’s most reliable rock figures.
For one thing, the retro aesthetic of the landline—so familiar, so obsolete—fits the sturdy, big-tent classicism running throughout On the Line. Ringo Starr plays drums on two songs; references to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones appear in the lyrics; and the equipment of Frank Sinatra and Carole King was used during the recording process. The music has a proudness—bold rhythms, finely considered melodies, plummy instrumental passages—uncharacteristic of the indie and emo tags that might erroneously remain attached to Lewis from the former child actor’s days in the early 2000s band Rilo Kiley.
The telephone effect also carries forward the song—and the album’s—story. To some man who’s leaving her, “Jolene”-style, Lewis pleads, “Before you let her under your sweater, tonight / listen to my heart beating / … / on the line.” The phrase on the line might be idiomatic—conveying how the stakes feel life-and-death when it comes to love—but it’s also concrete. The receiver is to her chest, and the person on the other end of the line has hung up.
Her chest is, perhaps not incidentally, also on the cover of On the Line, cropped in a fashion similar to the cover for 2014’s The Voyager, Lewis’s previous solo full-length album. Whereas the headless portrait five years ago featured a hip, psychedelic blazer, now it shows Lewis in a low-cut dress suited for going out and downing the cocktail of the lead single, “Red Bull & Hennessy.” It’s an image that, among other things, both invites and defies catcallers and shamers. On the Line is trying to bring dignity to what can be an abject situation—asking for love, regardless of the likelihood of reciprocation. Whether she’s sending nudes in the course of a breakup or saying to her dying mother, “I want more,” self-consciousness rumbles through these songs but never breaks their strut.
That carpe-diem premise is rendered monastery-pure amid the seedy party of “Red Bull & Hennessy.” A piano line trembles somewhere between hopeful and anxious, its tones so sharp they’re almost like the Halloween theme song. Lewis’s liquid-but-lucid voice comes in under it, and she’s trembling a bit, too. The melody is smooth and come-hither, but delivered as if by someone on the verge of breaking down. In the first verse, she’s “on [her] back” and begging to some haughty you. “After all we’ve been through / Oh, don’t you wanna kiss me?” she asks. “Don’t you wanna even try?” With a groove pocket as tight and deep as a well, and a finale of guitar fritz and electronic glitch, the song captures desperation of the most adult kind: making no apologies for itself.
On the Line arrives after Lewis’s breakup from her romantic partner of 12 years, and it’s hard not to think of that context as you listen. During the crushing “Dogwood,” she describes getting into a screaming match with someone whose “manners have gone away.” Her intonations move from churchly to country keening as she sings, “I believe that there will come a day / I believe that you will chase me away.” It’s a complex but recognizable sentiment—the preemption of rejection and the deliberate undoing of the foundations beneath a long-term commitment. She’s not wallowing; she’s explaining.
Lewis’s knack for rendering complexity in clean lines in this manner has always been a strength: “The lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap,” she spat in “A Better Son/Daughter,” Rilo Kiley’s 2002 anthem for an emotionally confused generation. Now, on the deceptively spry “Wasted Youth,” she suggests that her dad used to sing, “I wasted my youth on a poppy / doo doo doo.” It’s an evocative and somewhat mysterious lyric given how the parental heroin addiction that Lewis has talked openly about was actually that of her mother, who died of cancer in 2017. In any case, Lewis seems to be empathizing with the way addiction, distraction, and alienation from life are linked for everyone, whether a person’s vice is drugs or Candy Crush. The hardest gut punch comes in a casual memento mori bordering on—but transcending—cliché: “Everybody knows we’re in trouble.” Connect while you can.