Jenny Lewis is the kind of artist who could drop an album of animal noises she recorded in the woods and still have fans foaming at the mouth. So beloved is the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman that it’s almost surprising there wasn’t more outcry from her devotees in the six years it took to release another solo album. Sure, she kept somewhat busy — putting out a record with boyfriend Johnathan Rice, touring with a reunited The Postal Service — but as she reminds listeners on her third outing, The Voyager (out now), there’s nothing quite like Jenny Lewis front and center.
The Voyager is her least rootsy album to date, one that recalls the polish of her old band’s swan song, 2007’s Under the Blacklight, rather than the folk and country leanings of 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat and 2008’s Acid Tongue. As effortless and breezy as the final product sounds, though, The Voyager wasn’t so easy to make: in the years since her last album, Rilo Kiley disbanded, Lewis’ father passed away and she battled severe insomnia the once kept her up for five days straight.
Lewis can be cagey about just how much she’s revealing in the lyrics that appear most confessional — see a recent, almost comically tight-lipped explanation of the lyrics in “Just One of the Guys” — but references to her struggles do dot the record. Or rather, sandwiching tales of colorful characters and vice, they bookend it. On the album opener “Head Underwater,” Lewis sings of mourning, hallucinations and finding freedom after confronting her own mortality; on the closing title track, she mentions wake-up calls and departing for heaven to get out of this world. Befitting its title, the album meditates on a number of journeys: entering the altered states of sleep deprivation, overcoming personal turmoil, crossing into life after death.
Her subject matter couldn't be more suited to her creative process. “I am writing from a very simplistic place musically, and I feel like the words and melody come from somewhere else,” she told TIME earlier this summer. “They don’t come from an intellectual place, they arrive from another zone entirely.”
Lewis’ lyrics earn praise for their inclusive, non-judgmental studies of heartbreak and character flaws, but — her modesty aside — it's hard to find a better summary of her songwriting strengths than her own explanation of how she works. Lewis' music is timeless and her voice is far from otherwordly, but there is something to be said for the way her melodies have a habit of suddenly veering off into emotional sweet spots, taking songs into another zone entirely (to borrow her words). You hear it on the chorus of the Acid Tongue title track when Lewis sings the word "alive," and, thankfully, you hear it over and over again across The Voyager. Like any good film score, string arrangements and production flourishes from Beck and Ryan Adams nudge listeners' feelings toward those places, but it's almost unnecessary at this point — Lewis can get you there all on her own.