This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music’s list of 150 Greatest Albums By Women.
Before HAIM, Mitski, Waxahatchee and the current crop of empowered female singer-songwriters came onto the scene, Jenny Lewis paved the way with her unapologetic fusion of Americana, alt-pop and indie-rock. Lewis, who grew up a child actress (remember Troop Beverly Hills?) eventually found her footing as the masterful frontwoman of indie-pop stalwarts Rilo Kiley in 1998. The guitarist and singer oozed California coolness with her poetic license and fearless, diaristic lyrics; she had the courage to stand up for herself, the vulnerability to reveal the darkest parts of heartbreak and the power to know when to walk away. She took cues from the rawness of woman-led albums like Liz Phair‘s Exile In Guyville and she set the stage for modern women musicians to revel in their own lyrical candor.
With six Rilo Kiley albums, three solo albums and three collaborative LPs, Lewis’s success — and ability to churn out hits for almost two decades — is a head-on challenge to the misogyny directed at women in rock. Nowhere is this better illustrated than on Rilo Kiley’s third album, More Adventurous.
2004 was perhaps the most transformative year, professionally, for Lewis: Rilo Kiley struck a deal with Warner Bros. under the imprint Brute/Beaute Records and released More Adventurous. The timing was just right for Lewis’ voice to shine — just a year earlier, she had collaborated with Death Cab For Cutie‘s Ben Gibbard and Dntel‘s Jimmy Tamborello on The Postal Service‘s seminal electro-pop record Give Up. The innovative album showed the versatility of Lewis’ vocal talent, predicting the genre fluidity of her career. Meanwhile, Rilo Kiley had garnered a sizeable fan base in the indie scene prior to the 2004 release, but releasing under the Warner Bros. imprint helped the band reach an even wider audience. And thanks to More Adventurous’ anthemic, power-pop single “Portions For Foxes,” which tackled the complexities and downfalls of a physical-only relationship, Lewis and co. had a hit on their hands.
On More Adventurous, the quartet traded rough guitar riffs and often gritty vocals for a more polished sound. The band veered away from the nostalgic balladry of its first album, Take Offs And Landings, and built on the lo-fi recordings of its second, The Execution Of All Things. Vocally, More Adventurous puts Lewis front and center. You can hear it on “Portions For Foxes;” the way Lewis growls “c’mere” in the middle of the song cuts through harder than the guitar riffs. The lack of restraint in her voice showed a kind of strength, fierceness and owning of her worth that became a defining feature in her work.
Much of the record oscillates between love and heartbreak, and masks the latter in melodies that often fool you into thinking the songs are more hopeful than they are. “I read with every broken heart / we should become more adventurous,” she sings on the record’s title track, citing a Frank O’Hara poem. Lewis’ sincerity in her quest for love is relatable, as she questions marriage, children and divorce throughout the album — topics that set apart her perspective in the midst of male voices. She candidly admits to getting in her own way when it comes to love, and this keen sense of self-awareness fosters a connection with her listener. On “The Absence Of God,” she admits her own self-destructive tendencies, singing: “And I say there’s trouble when everything is fine / The need to destroy things creeps up on me every time / And just as love’s silhouette appears I close my eyes / And disappear, tonight.” Songs like “Does He Love You” — in which Lewis chronicles, in her heartbreaking way, a story about a woman’s affair with a married man and friendship with his wife — showcase Lewis’s masterful ability as a storyteller.
During a time where emo indie-rock was associated with male artists like Conor Oberst, The Decemberists and Modest Mouse, Lewis gave the guys a run for their money and was a strong female presence in the scene. She was perfecting the art of fusing honest reality with compelling storytelling ahead of even Hayley Williams‘ coronation as the Queen of Emo. Lewis’ bold confrontation of anger and her ability to mourn in such a raw way made her stand out in a sea of sad dudes; it made her an emo pioneer.
Today, More Adventurous remains a masterpiece in songwriting vulnerability. As she moves through the intimate details of her life and the narratives she’s crafted on More Adventurous (with a cleverness that makes it tough to tell which is which), Lewis pours her heart out to the point that her vocals sound like wails between string arrangements. On the album’s 11 tracks, Lewis flawlessly conquers love, death, war, tragedy, marriage, divorce, sex and heartbreak without shame, revealing a bravery and determination that has continued to resonate in the years since its release.