by Chris Hatch
While the DIY ethos of the mid-90s grunge scene continued to bleed through, its rough edges were polished up – baggy jeans became skinny-fit flares, oversized flannels became tight t-shirts, and the jangle of the Telecaster and Rickenbacker made a comeback.
The turn of the millennium seemed to be a rich time for US indie bands. The likes of Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Ben Kweller all found success in the decade from 1998 to around 2008 with a beguiling mix of doe-eyed, heartfelt songwriting, clever structures, and lo-fi production.
After the underground success of Take Offs & Landings, and, in particular, The Execution Of All Things (an album that saw chief songwriters Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett tease together a collection of modestly produced indie gems that explored themes of love and loss), Rilo Kiley set about recording their third full LP, and first for Saddle Creek, More Adventurous. Keen to expand their horizons in every sense, More Adventurous was intentionally titled – the vision not necessarily for everything to be ‘bigger’, instead for the record to head down untrodden paths. That’s not to say that this album was a complete departure for Rilo Kiley – the LP still mainly consisted of indie guitar tracks, but rather than falling into the void of oversaturated, twee, bedroom-indie, the band struck out into areas of hula music, gentle electronica, and the grandiose, sweeping balladry they would go on to master on 2007’s Under The Blacklight.
Opener, It’s A Hit, finds Jenny Lewis self-reverentially contemplating the importance of writing a ‘hit’ while exploring the hypocrisy around her at the time – written during the middle of the Bush administration and the ‘War On Terror’, Lewis considers the way we play fast and loose with death, and how, whether it’s the war abroad, or the death penalty at home, we barely register the lives that we are complicit in being taken as we go about our lives – ‘it’s a holiday for a hanging, shoop bop shoop bop, my baby,’ she sings ironically.
It’s on second track, Does He Love You?, however, that Lewis first enables one of the album’s most frequently used, and most successful songwriting devices. Lewis has a knack for putting herself in somebody else’s shoes and using that empathy as a point from which to explore wider themes about her relationships. Does He Love You? tells the tale of how a relationship blossoms and then withers into an adulterous mess – Lewis plays the role of confidant and advice-giver, and as the marriage grows more tumultuous, so too does the song – the band swelling into a mass of overdriven guitars and dramatic strings. This allegorical style of songwriting surfaces throughout the album – on the bustling electronica of Accidentl Deth (a track produced by Dntel, who Lewis would go on to work with alongside Ben Gibbard under the guise of The Postal Service), Lewis finds herself in the place of a person approaching the end of their life – ‘Your legs aren’t taking any more requests,’ she sings, ‘Those disobedient wrecks’. But it’s only later, in the second half of the song, when the narrator describes how their father accidentally killed a deer, and only then understood the gravity of death, that the meaning of the song changes slightly, ‘Will you feel sorry for what you’ve done? Will you put down your gun?’ asks Lewis – a line which could speak as much about the need to disarm her own anxieties and insecurities as it says about ending needless violence.
Elsewhere, Rilo Kiley explore slower, more contemplative areas of songwriting. The slow-dance shuffle of I Never is the most obvious precursor to Rilo Kiley’s follow-up album, Under The Blacklight, and sees lead singer, Jenny Lewis, step forward to claim the mirrorball-speckled limelight. The simple, guitar-vocal of Ripchord is widely regarded as a tribute to their friend and tourmate, Elliott Smith, who had taken his own life the year prior to More Adventurous – while lyrically it touches on Smith’s death (‘it was in the singing, and the strumming, oh man I even saw it coming’), it’s in the delivery and presentation of the song that the tribute is paid most obviously. Likewise, album-closer, It Just Is, again celebrates the life and work of Smith – this time in the form of a beautifully considered, string-laden track – ‘He wasn’t our son, he belonged to everyone,’ sings Lewis, acknowledging the wider impact Smith had on the artistic world.
It’s on penultimate track, A Man/Me/Then Jim, that all of the record’s tricks and themes come together. Over breezy horns, steel guitars, and lapping percussion, Lewis inhabits three different personas to give perspectives on love and death. It’s a jigsaw puzzle that fits together like some esoterically-put-together art film, and whether its ‘soft edge might cut you’, or its ‘mist might choke you’, the ‘slow fade of love’ is something that is inescapable for most.
If previous album, The Execution Of All Things, found Rilo Kiley exploring personal themes of loss and anguish, More Adventurous was their realisation that everybody has a burden to bear. Their intent was to be more adventurous, and while the album achieved that in every sense – from its richer production, to its more mature, diverse musical approach – it feels as though the most adventurous aspect was Lewis’ outward-facing songwriting. At a time when the likes of Bright Eyes were plunging the soul, Lewis turned her attention to how other people reacted and dealt with things – projecting both herself and others around her onto the lyrics she wrote.
Throughout the record, Lewis tries to untangle some kind of meaning out of the cycle of love and death; the characters in More Adventurous seem to be ruled by that endless loop… but it’s deep into the title track that it feels like she gets closest to the substance of it all – ‘I’ve felt the wind on my cheek, coming down from the East and thought about how we are all as numerous as leaves on trees, and maybe ours is the cause of all mankind – get loved, make more, try to stay alive.’
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