Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Best of 2008 Album Review: Jenny Lewis -- Acid Tongue

It's time for Number One! This is it! Here it comes! Number One!

Jenny Lewis -- Acid Tongue (p. Jenny Lewis, Johnathan Rice, Dave Scher, Jason Lader)

It's a funny thing about proclaiming one's self a liar. Why should we believe it? Why wouldn't a liar be lying about that too? It's a conundrum that once helped Captain Kirk blow the microcircuited mind of one of Harry Mudd's robots. And it may be Jenny Lewis's sly way of cluing us in that she's telling a great deal of truth on her most recent album -- the best collection of songs released during the calendar year of 2008 -- Acid Tongue.

"You know I am a liar," she sings on the pivotal title track and on the last word, she's joined by as heavenly a gospel choir of angels as ever danced on a pin. Yet during the course of that same song, she relates a tale that apparently really happened to her: as a young girl, she was slipped LSD. So if she's a liar, what exactly is the lie?

The album opens with "Black Sand," a tale of young love as the object of the singer's affections uses a line on her as old as the sand on a beach:

'I fell in love with a beautiful boy on the black sand
He took me away I was never the same on the black sand
He said, "Who's gonna love you buried underground?"'

While true, so far as it goes, it's the truth wielded in a deceitful way, implying that sex now and a loveless, lonely death are the only options. One suspects that it's the corruption of the truth more than the act itself that rendered her "never the same." At the end of the song, she dreams of an apocalyptic end, beaten down to her hands and knees by a storm on that same dark beach in a scene that reminded me of much of the imagery on the best album of 2007, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible.

Elsewhere the truth continues to be warped and twisted to the ends of whoever might be exploiting it at the time. In "The Next Messiah," the singer invents a wild, mythical character, a backwoods race-car driver and cancer survivor who she claims as her father, projecting classic daddy issues onto the impossible fictional character. "I'm gonna give my love to you," a male voice chants, "one day you're gonna give it back." Jenny responds in kind with an ineffectual (and possibly true) "I want to tell you I love you." The facts may be an invention, but the longing is undeniably real.

"Godspeed," a plea to a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, turns the interventionist impulse back on the singer herself: "When I was in bad shape I'll never forget what you always used to say -- 'What are we going to do with you?'" Who exactly is in need of saving here?

And so the lyrics on Acid Tongue go, posing riddles and reflexive conundrums that might be about the artist herself, probably come from her most personal experiences, but just as easily may be fabrications, tiger traps set for those who strive to view everything as autobiography.

It could turn from intriguing to simple frustration if these riddles weren't set to gorgeous and varied musical accompaniment from Jenny and her adventurous band. And it also helps that they're sung in her warm, earthy voice, capable of getting down in the rock and roll mud on a rockabilly stomp like "See Fernando," then soaring to bell-tower spires on "Trying My Best to Love You."

And for someone who once proclaimed herself to have been "Born Secular," Jenny has a clear affinity for hallelujah gospel. I've already mentioned the choir on "Acid Tongue," and in the gospel cautionary tale "Jack Killed Mom," she throws herself into a double-time Baptist rave-up that begs for staging with all the robed spiritual belters wildly throwing their hands in the air. That she applies such a religious technique to a tale of bloody vengeance only adds to the ironic delight. "Jack Killed Mom" is the violent flipside of "Teach Your Children": it could be subtitled, "Teach Your Children Well ... Or Else!"

It's gospel, it's pounding rock and roll, it's sweet balladry, it's compassionate, it's murderous, it's sexy, it's wildly catchy throughout, it's challenging, it's glossy, it's true, it's false, it's Acid Tongue and it's the Best Album of 2008.

Watch Jenny play a little live as Jack takes it out on Mom one more time.

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