Friday, 23 December 2011

Jeffrey Lewis is a cult boyfriend

Overheard at his recent gig in Bristol: "Everyone here thinks that they know Jeffrey Lewis". And it's true; Jeffrey Lewis invites a sort of over-familiarity, both on and off record. It may be to do with the fact that he doesn't so much sing as he does speak with little affectation and a blatant disinterest in technique. Raw vocals are an obvious summation of his voice, perhaps but it’s a perfectly apt description. He has a distinct conversational tone which suggests that there is no distance, no skin between him and the listener. It is easy to feel like you are on intimate terms with him, especially when his American drawl breaks into a squeak ('Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song') or when he can't help laughing at his own sexual inadequacies ('Life'). As he pours his stream-of-consciousness lyrics into your ear, you believe every word that he is saying. It's like being involved in an intensely personal and private conversation with a good friend in a public place. Other people might end up hearing their words but still, their words were only ever intended for you.

Jeffrey Lewis is losing his hair. In Bristol, he tried to hide it by having it longer in the front and sweeping it into a cool guy haircut. But when he bends down over his guitar, the bald spot is there for everyone to see. But that is the appeal of Lewis. He feels so achingly human, so very accessible, so easy to relate to. He does not look down upon the masses as this blasé, cooler-than-thou rock star; his popularity and relative success has not turned him into one of life’s winners. After all, his songs have always concerned his failings in life: both the big ones which slap you in the face and the small ones which persistently itch. He is hopeless with women; he is no good with drugs. And when they’re at the best, his songs manage to walk the line between emotional honesty and a suitable level of self-awareness. ‘ Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’ is still his best ever example of line walking. It’s a dark tale, a jet black comedy for our times, instantly recognisable to anyone who has had artistic pretensions. With lyrics that are as tight as telephone wires, Lewis both laments and lambasts the hipster indie rock lifestyle, where studied aloofness masks a desperate need to be validated: ‘noble starving artists fighting hard to feed our egos’. Lewis is making fun of Williamsburg scenesters but he also knows that he is part of that crowd and he shares their concerns and their fragility. He knows too well their insecurities. The lingering fear that behind dark glasses and great art, there is nothing but unoriginal and unpoetic brutality, is quite horrifying but also, quite funny.

Jeffrey Lewis with the amazing Peter Stampfel

Jeffrey Lewis is, in many ways, the culmination of his influences. He knows this, naming himself as a ‘cover artist in disguise’. The only way to get over the anxiety of influence is to accept that it exists. Lewis’s strength lies in a respectful and deferential deconstruction of his influences in order to produce a reading of folk/ punk/ rock music that is his own. Sure, he often gets it wrong, usually by tipping the balance between irony and sincerity, therefore, becoming either disingenuous or melodramatic. He always risks the possibility of becoming a parody of himself, not a cult boyfriend but a self-proclaimed cult boyfriend, too affected, too self-absorbed, too navel gazing and stoic to be any good in bed. But the majority of the time, he comes across as someone with no interest in trying to be cooler than he is, happy to expose the jugular, to write down the bones, to lay bare. And he’s probably a good lay as well.