Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard - 'Em Are I (Rough Trade 2009)

In Jeffrey Lewis’ strive to document the extensive parameters of his imagination, he leaves nothing to the imagination. Each private misery and pained emotion is documented in his work, from sexual inadequacy ‘East River’ to artistic integrity ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’. Through 5 albums of sparkling wit and lo-fi invention he has delivered a solid simple set of songs that are infinitely hummable and no less tuneful for his cracked overwrought lo-fi voice. And new album, ‘Em Are I’ is no exception, with its 12 ebullient songs about everything you ever want to know about life. Jeffrey Lewis is adept at finding the bigger picture in the smaller minutiae. Through his cultural references, confessional narratives and lyrics for invented science fiction shows, he is able to make claims to a higher knowledge and a wider field of view. And with his comics ploughing a similar field, the brush strokes reveal hidden details in his meticulously curated life. Look, make no mistake about his, I am one his hugest fans and music reviews just don’t to say this obvious or the earnest anymore, so let me just say at this point, this is easily going to be one of my favourite albums of the year. It’ll duke it out with Micachu later, but in the meantime, ‘Em Are I’ doesn’t stray too far from the formula, but it does give you exactly what you need in spades.

‘Slogans’ blasts this materialistic world of ours, riffing on No Logo’s tirade against brands, this time the effect is more holistic and Lewis is trying to find himself within these constant slews of information, lost in communication breakdowns. ‘Roll Bus Roll’ is a delicate banjo-tinged paean to the life of a travelling musician that sashays with the pull and tow of the bus. ‘If Life Exists’ is an elegant description of searching for true happiness and finding it in the simplest of things, like never getting bored ‘when you find the right two chords.’ The way he describes an increasing list of girlfriends still not making happy is a pivotal Lewis lyric, truly understanding the core of human failure and misery and allowing his description of it to be simple, never overwrought and constantly melancholy. ‘Broken Broken Broken Heart’ is a cracked pop song, uptempo and sad-tempo, with handclaps and a melodious chorus that bursts out of your chest with positivity despite its inherent sadness.

‘To Be Objectified’ takes a simple subject- going bald- and deconstructs it till it becomes about the vain futility of man’s obsession with his appearance despite its lack of importance. The sound effects in the intros create a panoramic view of the places these songs could have been written. And here as the sea roars, Jeff discusses ‘the manliest thing he’ll ever do...’ (going bald) and hopes that he’ll still be attractive. ‘Bugs and Flowers’ is a hippytastic theme tune for a cartoon that hasn’t been made yet, a tinge of sadness as Jeff walks endlessly finding the beauty at the core of humanity, but ultimately feeling loss in his core. ‘It’s Not Impossible’ is a simple melodic-driven lo-fi ebb and flow of travels and world-weariness sleep and hope. The politics of the Crass covers has subtly imparted itself on his palette. Finally, the brilliant and wry pastiche of science fiction ’Mini Theme: Moocher from the Future’ alludes to the best science fiction series ever with its scatological references to themes and events and a back story, and a strong narrative of mirth-inducing hilarity. With her ‘metal front and plastic back’ she messes around with King Saturn, travels through time, destroying her own present with her incursions into her past and future.

The sadness and wryness on these album are completely in tune with the lo-fi antifolk stylings of Lewis and his Junkyard band, all adding subtle touches to the enigmatic voice in their centre. The sound effects and sampled moments all add to the simple DIY sound. This is one of the albums of the year from one of the best lyricists in the world today.


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