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.” He addresses the pitfalls of love on the hand-clap propelled, ’60s pop of “Broken Broken Broken Heart.” He grapples with the mundanity of the modern world on “Slogans,” and he lets his predilection for comic books take over on the spiraling fantasia of “Mini- Theme = Moocher From the Future.” This is all very familiar Lewis territory, and it is all delivered with his typical wry sense of humor and self-deprecating phrasing in his trademark carefully enunciated vocals.
He offers soem new aspects, as well, most notably the refined production techniques, which give the album a warmer, more polished feel. That’s especially true on “Roll Bus Roll,” a tender, Kerouac-evoking, acoustic paean to the escapism afforded by Greyhound buses. Musically, Lewis’s band has also progressed, sounding more confident and capable. The seven-minute “Upside Down Cross,” on which Calexico meet Sonic Youth to sing about marriage, the ecology and the Algerian war, written by bassist Jack Lewis (Jeffrey’s brother), adds another dimension to Lewis’s usual acoustic or punk palette, as does J. Mascis’s distinctive guitar solo on the absurd “Good Old Pig, Gone to Avalon” and Emily Lacy’s banjo on the madcap “Whistle Past the Graveyard.”
But despite the more polished production and occasional forays into musical experimentation, ‘Em Are I is an uneven affair. But what’s more troubling is why, if he admits that he doesn’t have anything new to say about the subjects he’s already covered, he doesn’t find new themes to explore.