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.