As far as solo albums go, Jenny Lewis’s separation from her band Rilo Kiley was easy to predict. Lewis took a lead role over the course of the band’s career, overshadowing her bandmates in public fascination, if not always in talent (I still have a giant soft spot for Blake Sennett). When she released her debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, with the Watson Twins in 2006, it was less surprising that she chose to go solo than that she changed genres. Rabbit Fur Coat dabbled in gospel and country, leaving listeners to wonder if she would go Nashville for good. But in another surprise, Lewis’ follow-up, Acid Tongue, takes a completely new direction.
This time, Lewis isn’t so much concerned with playing a different genre but changing a perception. Rabbit Fur Coat created a good-girl image; here she deconstructs that image, dirtying it up and doing her best to go bad. Much like Under the Blacklight created a seedy, unfamiliar atmosphere for Rilo Kiley, this album is darker than her debut.
For whatever reason, a good amount of records this year start off with lackluster tracks, and Acid Tongue unfortunately falls into that category. The worst offender is “The Next Messiah”, an eight-minute-plus medley that sounds like the black-sheep child of The Who and an American Idiot-style punk operetta. It packs too many undercooked ideas into one track. For the first four songs, Lewis sounds constrained and overly caught up in trying to force a change in her listeners’ perception of her.
Thankfully, the title track shifts gears completely. “Acid Tongue” is the catharsis needed to shake off the frills and heavy production clogging the album’s early songs. Lewis has performed many of these songs live for several years, and they sound well-traveled. Backed by a country-tinged chorus of helping voices, Lewis strips everything down to a real image of herself, as in the line “To be lonely is a habit / like smoking or taking drugs / and I’ve quit them both / but man, was it rough.”
From that point on, Acid Tongue is tranformed. It sounds freer, going for broke and having fun while maintaining an edge. “Carpetbaggers” is a standout, reminiscent of the country twang of Rabbit Fur Coat but rocking harder than any track on that album, while the macabre storytelling of “Jack Killed Mom” maintains the darker progression of Lewis’s career.
Where gospel marked her debut, Lewis uses the sounds of soul music on Acid Tongue’s later tracks, and she isn’t afraid to let her voice explore that style. But after two records, it’s still hard to gauge whether Lewis is better off without her band. There certainly aren’t full arrangements on the album that couldn’t have used a little guitar meddling from Blake Sennett, but with a guest list including Elvis Costello, M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel and Lewis’ boyfriend, Jonathan Rice, there’s no shortage of star power. Lewis has the chops to create a cohesive and compelling tune on her own, but Acid Tongue stumbles out of the gate with a few weak songs. That isn’t to say there aren’t very strong tracks later in the record, but one wonders if those kinks could’ve been worked out with help from her full band.