Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard- ''Em Are I' (Rough Trade)
Thanks to Juno, last year antifolk suddenly gained a whole lot more attention. People were piping up, claiming to be huge Moldy Peaches fans, despite the rest of their output sounding nothing like 'Anyone Else But You.' One strange omission to the soundtrack was Jeffrey Lewis, arguably the king of that indefinable genre of antifolk.
'Em Are I' is his fifth album, marking the transition from underground troubadour into respected musician. It also sees Jeff reach new heights in optimism, on opener 'Slogans'. “Now, who's that handsome animal, I feel so good I feel 6 feet tall.” It may be irony, but it feels pretty genuine. Where's the Jeff of yesteryear, begging his girl to not be upset with him?
Oh, there he is. “I wasn't designed to move so fast, I wasn't born to have so much past” he sings on 'Roll Bus Roll', a touching paean to the traveller's life backed by a gentle strum. Sadness is still an important part of being Jeff Lewis. It's yet more clearly illustrated on 'Broken Broken Broken Heart', a song about his break up (incidentally, he started playing the song while his ex-girlfriend was still in the band. Chutzpah, that's what that is). The track works on the paradox, much like Of Montreal, of combining upbeat music, full of handclaps and glee, with tragic lyrics. Over his lengthy antifolk career, this is the closest he's got to a song that could be crowbarred into radio schedules.
The lyrics are arguably the most important part of any Jeff Lewis album, but this album marks further progress on the music side. He's said himself that having to work solely on the music for his Crass covers album last year has helped progress his craft, and it's hard to argue with him here from what's on show on ''Em Are I.' 'To Be Objectified' for one marks a new sophistication and clarity with the musicianship.
Maybe he's even grown up a bit. There are no zombie or ghouls on this album, although there is a pig. It's hard to tell whether this new found maturity is a good or bad thing. Sometimes singing about comic books can be just as therapeutic as singing about heartbreak. It's definitely more escapist.
One notable evolution in the music is the appearance halfway through of 'The Upside Down Cross', penned by his brother Jack. Normally relegated to bass playing duties, the song trawls along for 2 ½ minutes with flourishes of jazz club trumpet, until lyrics about saving the manatee pop up. Whilst bearing close relation to Jack's solo work, it marks a big departure for Jeff, into more avant garde territory than his usual antifolk shenanigans. It works well in breaking up the album, and avoids any threat of the album getting samey.
'Em Are I' is probably one of the best records so far of Jeff's lengthy career. It marks real progression, even after over 10 years of releases. That it is a successful balancing of the tragic and the triumphant is testament to Lewis's skill both as a wordsmith and a musician. 4/5