On “Heads Gonna Roll,” the first track of LP On the Line, Jenny Lewis sweetly sings a threat: "heads gonna roll, baby / everybody's gotta pay that toll and maybe / after all is said and done / we'll all be skulls." It’s followed by a catchy-yet-regretful bop, “Wasted Youth,” and then the album’s lead single, “Red Bull and Hennessy,” a seedy peek into hookup culture. It’s not that Lewis has become a cynic, it’s just that her Gen X penchant for irony kicked into overdrive — and that’s the blade she sharpens to use in her fight against the darkness rising.
The first half of the album, lyrically, owes a debt to Elvis Costello; the vicious tongue, clever wordplay, and cultural references spanning the Rockefeller family to chemtrails are offset by Lewis’s deadpan delivery style. But midway through, just as we flip to where the b-side would start in another era, Lewis’s whole mood changes, along with the tone of the record.
Mirroring her real life, in which Lewis stepped back from writing this album to care for her estranged mother after she was diagnosed with cancer, from “Dogwood” on, the songs tackle an off-kilter family dynamic. On the track, a departure from the lackadaisical melodies on the first half of the album to a somber piano, she sings about the futility of living and dying while trying to make a dysfunctional relationship work. In “Little White Dove” she imagines herself as the harbinger of peace while invoking Stevie Nicks, in a song she penned while watching over her mother in a hospital bed. Her parting shot in the album’s final song, “Rabbit Hole,” is a cry for freedom sung from multiple points of view, but it ends with a declaration: “I'm not gonna go down the rabbit hole / with you.”
Lewis penned all the lyrics on this intensely personal, occasionally bizarre album. She’s backed by a makeshift supergroup on each track — Linda Ronstadt similarly put her bands together in the ‘70s —and under her supervision they groove through melodies that arguably wouldn’t sound out of place 40 years ago or 40 years in the future. It’s the lyrics that put this album in a specific time and place, with mentions of “bae” and “Mercury in retrograde” Candy Crush and Paxil. It’s a deliberate choice, not unlike the ones Jay Z and Eminem made on many of their songs from the ‘00s; it allows Lewis to find a new way to write about universal themes that anchors them in the now. Some thoughts are too painful to subsist forever.