Sashaying on stage, Jenny Lewis exudes retro American glamour. The US singer-songwriter’s backcombed, country-diva hair and floor-skimming sequinned gown come accessorised with feathery cuffs and eyelashes like ski slopes. Taking her seat behind an organ, Lewis looks like the sole survivor of an explosion in a Nashville theatrical apparel shop; naturally, she drinks from a goblet.
Later, pink and blue latex balloons will bounce down from above. The contrast with this sticky-floored Bristol venue, hardly one of the city’s most atmospheric, couldn’t be more stark. The stage is set kitsch: her five-piece band vying for space with pink and blue old-school telephones that light up. They are a reference to Lewis’s recent and most feted album, On the Line, which came out in March. The words coming out of Lewis’s cherry-red lips, though, are grim. “Heads gonna roll,” she sings sweetly, invoking both death and funny cigarettes. “After all is said and done, we’ll all be skulls.”
Lewis’s commitment to glitz is sincere. In sound, she mostly skews towards the rhinestones of country-pop, when she’s not mining the west-coast soft rock of the 70s, an aesthetic choice she shares with Haim (Danielle Haim was at one time Lewis’s touring guitarist). Also like Haim, Lewis grew up in showbiz in Los Angeles, eventually following in the footsteps of her musician parents.
But the glam window-dressing and sweet-toothed melodies are there to cushion the blows of Lewis’s dark, funny, sometimes desperately poignant songs. The more she goes on – she is four albums, and over a decade, into a solo career – the more she sounds like one of the greats. Like the would-be offspring of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, she is arch, but mellifluous; bittersweet, but with an ear for harmonic resolution, at once a happy-go-lucky troubadour fond of sparking up “a doob” (her own strain of marijuana is in the works), and a deep emotional thinker. She’s Not Me (80s pop-rock from her last album, 2014’s The Voyager;) has a whiff of Petty’s Free Fallin’ about it tonight, while Head Underwater, from the same record, is one of a handful of audible Fleetwood Mac tributes.
With a reputation as an artist’s artist – the list of her famous cheerleaders and collaborators is long – On the Line has won her renewed attention from the paying public as well. It’s charted higher here than her previous records and has been streamed globally 2m times; a handful of venues on this UK tour have been upgraded and the odd date added.
It felt like a new generation of fans came on board for The Voyager, especially when, for Just One of the Guys, Lewis recruited stars like Kristen Stewart, Anne Hathaway and Brie Larson to wear false moustaches and act out blokey tropes for the video.
Tonight, the song still comes with a sly wink and lustrous harmonies from bassist Solomon Dorsey, guitarist Emily Ebert and, tucked away at the back, keyboard player Ben Alleman. But what sings loudest is the ambivalence towards gender stereotypes, cut through with the sorrow of a woman who didn’t reproduce. “I’m just another lady without a baby,” Lewis trills.
On Happy, meanwhile – a song that is anything but – Lewis sings “by the flicker, by the light of the TV set”, and the lighting tech responds in kind. It’s that kind of a gig: thought given to detail, just as Lewis does in her songs. Her endlessly quotable writing is littered with “Fuji apples”, “sycophants in Marrakech”, “Paxil” (an antidepressant) and “black Corvettes”.
One of the reasons On the Line is such a compelling listen is that Lewis’s candour and specificity has only increased. In a blitz of interviews this year, she revealed the trying circumstances in which she made the record. While some of it was recorded in Capital Records’ famed Studio B, with a dream lineup of musicians – two cameos from Ringo Starr, enlisted at the behest of Don Was (Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones); Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on keyboards, drummer Jim Keltner (various Beatles, Yoko Ono, Carly Simon) – the album came together in the aftermath of the end of Lewis’s long‑term relationship and the death of her mother.
Album highlight Wasted Youth is typical tonight: a breezy song spangled with “doot-doot-doos”, it nods at Lewis’s tender years as a child actor, the family breadwinner after her parents split. Lewis co-starred in late-80s kids’ films and had bit parts in Golden Girls and Toys R Us ads. “I wasted my youth on a poppy,” Lewis sings, feather-light, “just because.” What she actually means is this: her earnings not only kept her family, but fed her mother’s heroin addiction.
Eventually, Lewis left acting to start a band: Rilo Kiley, where she shared billing with her then partner, Blake Sennett, producing four well-received indie rock studio albums in the 00s before that relationship, and the band, fizzled. With Arms Outstretched, a Rilo Kiley song, ties off the encore to a set that spans all of Lewis’s records. As per the words, Lewis stands on a small podium, arms aloft, supplicating something higher as the crowd clap slightly out of time.
Lewis remained estranged from her mother for 20 years. But her shadow falls over a number of Lewis’s efforts, beginning with Rabbit Fur Coat, her debut solo outing of 2006, recorded with the harmonies of the Watson Twins. (The title track, which she doesn’t play tonight, is a heartstring-twanger. “Where my ma is now, I don’t know,” it goes. “She was livin’ in her car, I was livin’ on the road/And I hear she’s puttin’ that stuff up her nose.”)
Tonight we get a strong showing from Rabbit Fur Coat – three tracks, which culminate in one of Lewis’s greatest hits, Born Secular. “I was born secular and inconsolable,” Lewis sings, as her backing vocalists add lustrous additional parts. One of Lewis’s calling cards is chronicling the seedy underbelly of Americana; a love for gospel vying with scorn for televangelists.
Lewis and her mother, by then battling terminal liver cancer brought on by hepatitis C, were reconciled in hospital. They found they liked one another. Little White Dove, another standout, unfurls a funky bassline, and reconciliation. “I’m the heroin,” Lewis sings. In lesser hands, this would be a piano ballad. In Lewis’s, it sounds like a Jack White tune produced by Dr Dre. As one YouTube commentator put it: the song is about her mother dying, “and she makes it a bop”.