Though she's best known for her stint in the pop-rock band Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis has done her best work as a solo artist, and "The Voyager" continues the trend.
Her third solo release, and first since "Acid Tongue" in 2008, is a collection of breezy songs about tumultuous events. With Lewis' health and relationship difficulties as a backdrop, "The Voyager" (Warner) chronicles a road stretching back to childhood, full of wrong turns, missed opportunities and failed relationships.
The vibe is unabashedly '70s California — the confessional songs and country-tinged melodies of the Laurel Canyon era merged with Fleetwood Mac's gleaming but tortured pop-rock. Lewis' pristine, at times deceptively childlike voice channels a series of life-shaking events. "Head Underwater" chronicles a breakdown in a bouncy tune supported by wordless backing vocals. There's a hint of hope as the song winds down, but at a steep price. "She's Not Me" is equally transparent about a breakup: "Remember the night I destroyed it all/ When I told you I cheated/ And you punched through the drywall."
Recorded with friends such as Beck, The Watson Twins and Benmont Tench, and largely produced by Ryan Adams, the songs balance lush textures with organic arrangements that put Lewis' voice and the melody at the forefront. Nothing feels particularly overdone, and the album plays smoothly enough to qualify as background music for a sand bar.
Behind the sometimes off-putting yacht-rock smoothness, heavy psychoanalysis lurks in "The New You" and "You Can't Outrun 'Em," which flirts with the occult. The singer contemplates a life that has so far left her childless in "Just One of the Guys" and muses in the vacation-from-hell tale "Aloha & the Three Johns" whether "this (is) the beginning of middle aging" or "the end of civilization."
No matter how dark things get, the music carries that weight with a redemptive grace. The title track reflects on the "jagged line" to recovery, with Lewis' voice at its most vulnerable. She and the song gain strength as they proceed, a lovely string arrangement sweeping them into the light.
3 stars (out of 4)