At some point, any voyager with a heart has to make the return trek, and on a spare stage beneath simply rendered spotlights, Jenny Lewis celebrated hers at the Wiltern on Saturday night.
"It's good to be home. It's been a while," Lewis said to the sold-out theater. The longtime Angeleno, cofounder of Rilo Kiley and one of this city's most admired contemporary musicians, has been on the road for three months in support of "The Voyager," her excellent new solo album. A short time earlier, she'd entered a room of doting fans who knew all the words to the Kiley songs and were well on their way to internalizing the new ones.
As she walked to the microphone and started strumming the chords to the 2007 Rilo Kiley song "Silver Lining," the only thing missing was a ticker-tape parade. "And I'm not going back into rags or in the hole," she sang. "And our bruises are coming, but we will never fold."
Sung alone, it's a beautifully crafted verse; when joined by an 1,800-plus-person audience, it was breathtaking. Los Angeles sure does love its Jenny Lewis.
And why not? Lewis is a deft songwriter as open about her flaws and insecurities as she is about her conquests and exploits, and her skill as a lyricist is an ability to connect through resonant lines, cut through razor-sharp emotions and vividly restage old scenarios.
"Bet you tell her I'm crazy," she sang in "She's Not Me," voicing the frustrations of misunderstood hearts everywhere while the members of her five-piece band, all dressed in white, backed her. Of a three-way tryst during "Slippery Slopes," Lewis sang of "a joy that freedom brings" while warning of "slippery slopes, mushrooms and coke."
In "Love U Forever," Lewis recalled a long-gone boy "tongue-tied and wearing corduroy" with whom she fell in love in the early 1990s' "daisy age" and "wore peace signs as the riots blazed."
On Saturday, the artist, 38, was more voyager than musical adventurer, keen on following safe musical routes rather than cutting through experimental thicket. Her best songs delivered lines that captured in a few well-honed syllables a cinematic depth, carefully placed into solidly structured, well planned pop blueprints that moved with logic toward conclusion. She and her band didn't experiment with culture clash through injections of disco, punk, noise, EDM or hip-hop; they kept solos to a minimum and stuck to a conservative template that was equal parts Americana twang and Pacific Coast sparkle.
Supremely comfortable onstage, Lewis knowingly joked between songs about that could-be conservatism when she mentioned an interaction with speed metal band Megadeth's founder Dave Mustaine. During a conversation, he asked her how "the cabaret singing" was going.
While stylistically off the mark, Mustaine's misconception had a kernel of truth. At Lewis' least convincing, her songs feel like beige period pieces, specifically tailored for climactic moments within prime-time TV dramas and possessing an adult contemporary sheen perfect for dinner parties or, like "The New You," as hooks in quirky TV ads.
"It's a new you every day," she offered. If you weren't paying attention, the line could have been a cliched aphorism written for a Metamucil ad.
But beneath that hook and others were lines that upended assumptions, turned what could have been cookie-cutter sentiments into Lewis-esque snapshots. Her "new you" was in fact about a frustrating soul struggling with sobriety in post-9/11 New York while listening to Metallica's "Kill 'Em All."
These twists revealed a truth about Lewis' best work. Sometimes the most fantastic, illuminating voyages can be experienced via well-traveled, seemingly tapped routes.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit