The bandaged-head cover cartoon and cutesy title wordplay of Jeffrey Lewis' fifth album provide a decent indication, for the uninitiated, of the N.Y.C. songwriter/illustrator's goofiness and droll wit, qualities that are evident in many of the songs contained within. But they also hint, cleverly and somewhat obliquely, at the album's surprisingly weighty subject matter: though not specifically medical in focus, most of these songs are concerned with death, existential pain, and the otherwise more corporeal aspects of the human experience.
We all know everything about Jeffrey Lewis. It’s all there in his music – no stone left unturned in his relentless quest to be completely open and honest about every aspect of his life. Artistic insecurity? Check (the inimitable ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’). Sexual insecurity? Check (‘The East River’ and many more).
"Eighty per cent of success is showing up," quipped Woody Allen, to whom fellow neurotic New Yorker Jeffrey Lewis has often been compared. That would at least explain Lewis's lack of mainstream success, because more often than not he's too busy unravelling his anxieties around a battered acoustic guitar to bother showing up. If past Jeffrey Lewis albums count as showing up, then it's showing up hungover, in a crumpled suit, with bits of toast in his beard.
In January, the New York Times published a cartoon strip by Jeffrey Lewis, entitled A Year in Love and Music: My 2008 in a Nutshell. It is a work best avoided by anyone looking forward to his new album, their anticipation sharpened by its predecessor, 12 Crass Songs, on which Lewis reworked the anarcho-punk band's oeuvre to staggering effect: who knew that angry demands for the immediate dismantling of the entire apparatus of government and state could sound so sweetly reasonable when set to acoustic guitar and sung in a nasal American twang? If Crass had thought of doing that instead of yelling all the time, we might all be living in self-governing pacifist vegan communes now. You might have assumed that Lewis had a pleasant 2008.
New York's Jeffrey Lewis is an original. On his latest, his verbose lyrics are oh so tragic-funny and oh so vivid. He casually tosses off lines about voracious flies, Hulk Hogan, talking corpses, the beauty of the human race and a million other things. Some songs are rollickin' garage rock; others are meditative fingerpicked tunes.
In a recent interview Jeffrey Lewis claims that on his earliest songs ("Chelsea Hotel," "Heavy Heart," "Life") he very clearly said everything that he had to say about life, death, love and drugs. Despite this assertion, Lewis, the leading exponent of antifolk (excluding those on the Juno soundtrack), revisits these themes once again on 'Em Are I, his fifth album proper. Lewis struggles with existential angst on the platitudinous "If Life Exists.
It might seem curious that, up to this point, Jeffrey Lewis has attracted most mainstream attention by way of a collection of covers of a 30-year-old anarcho-punk band. But while on 2007’s 12 Crass Songs the New Yorker set himself the challenge of converting riotous, wrathful indignation and barked punk delivery into sweetly genial folk trickled calmly out in timidly nasal deadpan, he also required of himself a realignment of his musical priorities. I don’t think it would be an unreasonable assumption to expect that people who buy Lewis’s records and show up to his indefatigable tours are attracted in large part by his lyrical deftness.
Jonathan Richman put out a single called "You Can Have a Cell Phone That's Okay But Not Me" as a bonus 7" with the vinyl edition of last year's Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild. You could make the same criticisms of it that guys like me tend to make of Jeffrey Lewis-- the recording is almost entirely a delivery system for the words, it's hard to imagine anyone listening to it just for the sounds, and his voice mostly sticks to one or two notes-- but it also happens to be one of my favorite tracks of 2008. Music doesn't have to be about pure sound; used to be it was about emotional connection, too.
If last year's 12 Crass Songs was the only recording this Brooklyn-based anti-folk-up ever put out, it would've been enough. An acoustic, eclectic, and altogether electrifying interpretation of the UK anarchists' greatest nonhits, Crass proved Jeffrey Lewis in on the joke even when there wasn't any. Now 'Em Are I, arriving in the wake of connubial catastrophe, comes chock-full o' rat-clever rhymes and tinny triple entendres that could've been titled Systematic Death (of the Heart).
What is Jeffrey Lewis afraid of? This graphic artist/New York Times columnist/songwriter can dash off hyper-literate, clever verses at lightning speed, wrapping weirdo meditations on death and reincarnation in neat couplets, skewering every aspect of hip modern life – and often himself – with piercing insights. Yet while intelligence is his stock in trade, Lewis doesn’t seem to trust it. Even in his smartest songs – the deconstruction of dysfunctional love in “Broken Broken Heart,” the consideration of the limits of human perception in “To Be Objectified,” the agnostically giddy “Whistle Past the Graveyard”– balance philosophy with self-conscious naivete.