jenny lewis, patron saint of sad girls, is trying to be happy now—or something like it
i wrote a lot of this on the subway! maybe it works maybe it doesn’t!!!
Jenny Lewis had shitty parents. A broad judgement made off of what personal information is selectively made available for public consumption, sure, but when your parents get divorced when you’re still a toddler and your dad pretty much abandons you and your mom uses your child star income to fund her heroin habit, I think it’s safe to assume we can say someone’s parents were more shitty than not.
All of our parents will fail us at some point in our lives, of this we can be certain. After all, we’re just imperfect humans. Some of us have gotten the luck of the draw and are the adept progeny of people whose shortcomings barely register on any kind of Richter scale, people who have somehow lucked into having a normal and heathy and loving relationship with the people who made and/or raised them. To those, I say: I’m happy for you but also I hate you and this essay is probably not for you.
The rest of us, well, we’re trying. Some of us will have parents who fail us in spectacular fashion, the way Lewis’s did, but not always. Sometimes the wounds inflicted are small, building up over time and brushed away by the thought that things aren't so bad until the large sum of damage is realized years later. The ways we come about our pain may be different, but we’re hurting nonetheless. Lewis has always stuck me as one of those wounded birds trying to make sense of it all, trying so hard to not be wounded at all, but stuck in a perpetual state of sadness. I feel that way sometimes. Maybe you do too. Maybe that’s what draws us to her: the way she vocalizes our darkest, most desperate feelings in ways we cannot, the way she loosens the power they have over her by shouting them out into the void, the way she grows from them, the way she leaves behind the feelings she has she outgrown.
That last part I’d always understood, but had never really been hit by until now. Last summer, filled with curious anticipation, my friend Carly and I took a train out of the city on a balmy Saturday afternoon to see Jenny Lewis, lacking any New York proper dates, perform live in New Haven. It had been nearly four years since her last album, and though the past couple of years had been speckled with rumblings about time in the studio with collaborators like Ringo Starr and Benmont Tench, a new live bootleg here and there, and a one-off punk supergroup, a solo tour seemed questionable. What, exactly, we wondered, could she possibly be touring behind?
It wasn’t so much a tour as it was a workshop, in a way. Old favorites were played, but at least half the setlist was full of new ones we’d never heard before. That night in New Haven, unable to sing along, I stood just behind the rail and felt my breath catch in my throat as she played versions of still unreleased tracks from On The Line — the majority of which were the most painful, ones about her breakup with partner Jonathan Rice and the deaths of her estranged parents. At the time, the feelings were still obviously visceral and raw — tears unexpectedly falling, voice cracking, eye contact breaking. I didn’t have any words for the display of vulnerability other than that it felt so intimate, from the intensely personal lyrics down to the soft, inviting living room stage set, that at times I felt like she was alone in her room, and I was intruding on something deeply private. It was too much in all the right ways.
What Lewis was working out that night, what she was processing, was how to let go. I didn’t understand that then, but I do now, seeing her again a year to the date since that evening. On The Line feels like it took so long to come to fruition not just because of all those typical reasons records take a long time to be made. It’s more like it was an album carved directly from her physical body, all made up of bits of her blood and flesh and tears and brain and uterus and liver and heart. Sometimes parts of yourself spoil the same as that yogurt in your fridge you can’t seem to part with, the one you think “Well, it can’t be THAT bad,” because what if you might need it for something down the line — it might make you sick, but isn’t that better than not having it at all? Figuring out that sometimes we need to sacrifice a harmful but known something and lay all our bets on it opening up space for something better takes time.
There is no shortcut to ridding yourself of painful feelings. There’s no Marie Kondo for that shit, no matter how much we might try, though Jenny’s setlist sure seems to be lighter, and not just in length. An inescapable undercurrent of sadness runs through all her songs, but gone are the outright tearjerkers — both new ones and old favorites. What’s left are the songs that, even when laced with despair, still come out on the side of optimism: “The Voyager,” “Do Si Do,” “Wasted Youth,” “Party Clown,” “Silver Lining,” — god, even “Happy,” a soft spoken track largely about the state of being very unhappy while holding out hope for a peak at the sun breaking through the horizon somewhere, sometime.
Lewis is in control, self-assured. Even in her performance of a song like “Little White Dove,” a track that douses the death of her estranged mother in abstract metaphors and thick, soupy funk rhythms, the stakes have changed. On the album, the event feels still fresh with Lewis lost in the song, trying to make sense of and reconcile with their relationship. Live, it's still about healing, yes, but it becomes bigger than that. When Lewis stands on her podium, one arm reaching as stubbornly far into the air as she can stretch, the other clutching her microphone, she’s a force to be reckoned with as she belts In the middle of love, I’m the little white dove. The deliberately ambiguous following line packs a bigger punch; when she sings I’m the heroine, you can’t help but hear it with the silent e that didn’t always exist before. Live, the song feels more grand than it ever could on your tinny speakers; it’s become a reclamation of power in a relationship that once drained her of it. Unleashing that energy is cathartic, but it’s generous at the same time. It’s a reminder that we can all be bigger than that which tries to break us.
I went to see Lewis expecting to hear the most gut-wrenching songs of On The Line, ready and willing — and almost needing on this Father’s Day Eve — my heart to break open, the tears to sting and pool in my eyes before snaking behind my dark sunglasses to dry in in shaky lines down my cheeks. I needed to feel like I could be angry and hurt and sad and broken and lonely but heard and a little less alone in all of that.
Jenny Lewis makes great music to cry to. Nearly every time I’ve seen her live, there’s been at least one moment where I’ve had to wipe away fat dollops of tears. I didn’t cry tonight, but I definitely felt less alone. It was a perfect evening for a concert at Forest Hills, that perfect unoppressive kind of classic all-American summertime hot countered with a gentle breeze. Jenny Lewis’s Valley of the Dolls stage look felt almost laughably out of place in a set that was timed to occur mostly before the dinner hour. Two-thirds of the way though, though, the clouds that had covered the sky shifted; the sun broke through in a way that could not only be more delightfully on the nose if it were lighting instructions written into a rom-com script by Nancy Meyers. The golden hour light bounced off the rose gold colored sequins on Lewis’s gown, making it seem less sad showgirl and more joyous, more glamorous in its lack of fucks to be had, the whole thing feeling like a celebration and embracement of her most true self. Jenny Lewis didn’t sing any of the sad songs I was hoping to hear — her new gut punches like “Dogwood” and “Taffy” were absent, along with old live staples like “Acid Tongue” — but I was emotional for a moment, nonetheless, feeling briefly overwhelmed by the beauty and hope of it all, and the fact that she made a choice to not visit her sorrow night after night. At least, not right now.
Rilo Kiley’s sophomore album opens with Lewis’s soft-spoken and excruciatingly vulnerable track “The Good That Won’t Come Out.” You say I choose sadness, that it never once has chosen me, Lewis sings during the bridge, following the blow with a mumbled maybe you’re right. Seventeen years later, the tides have turned. Jenny Lewis, patron saint of sad girls everywhere, is working towards something more, and it's a joy to watch. “You have to make a choice to be happy, or try to be,” she told Pitchfork earlier this year. “You have to find your bliss in life, right?”
We can make art from our pain, yes, but we don’t have to hang onto it. We can purge it from our system and make other people feel comforted, because at a certain point it’s not just ours anymore. Near the end of “Head Underwater,” one of many of Lewis’s more-recent songs about the sometimes long and arduous process of putting a broken person back together, she couples newfound optimism with her trademarked dogged resilience: There’s a little bit of magic, everybody has it, she sings. There’s a little bit of fight left in me yet.
These things don’t have to belong to us anymore, the sadness and the shame, if we don’t want them. It's a fight, but it's not impossible. We’re all a little or a lot fucked up, but that’s okay. We’re gonna be okay.
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okay that's it that's the end thanks bye