Jeffrey Lewis has been flying the flag for the New York anti-folk scene for over fifteen years now. While other acts pursued paths that were wilfully obscure, flippant or ironically vacuous, Lewis has always sought to lace the nihilistic humour of his songs with a sincerity that is arguably lacking from some of his peers, and it is this sincerity that gives longevity to a form that, in less adroit hands, might begin to wear thin after a couple of albums.
Lewis is nothing if not prolific: including EPs as well as albums, Manhattan is something like his twenty-fifth release and while the blueprint remains the same – the wit of Woody Allen, the cracked delivery that mixes early Dylan with early Beck, the narrative tricksiness of Paul Auster – the music sounds more mature than ever. His band – Los Bolts – back him throughout and the production is… well let’s just say that the production is noticeable. While this isn’t a complete break with the lo-fi aesthetic of the past, it does allow the musician the odd flourish here and there, with the result that the songs sound fuller and more varied than Lewis’ previous work. Take the opening song: Scowling Crackhead Ian (a classic Lewis song title if ever there was one) begins with the sounds of a cityscape some melancholy acoustic guitar. Thus, with some laid back drums and Caitlin Gray’s swirling, effects-laden keys, the tone is set, even before the words kick in. And as is usually the case with Lewis, the words are extraordinary. It deals with a kind of inverse nostalgia: the narrator explores the unpleasant and at times violent memories of his childhood acquaintance, the titular Crackhead Ian, before revealing that, in contrast to the rest of the people he knew back then, he and Ian are more similar than is perhaps comfortable. Both men are still living in the Lower East Side; both are haunted by possible futures that never happened. Lewis’ delivery is less rapid-fire than usual, and this highlights the impression that the two men are somehow trapped in time.
Thunderstorm is even more of a slow burner, with Gray’s synthy organ to the fore, giving the song an aura of dreamy ennui, while Sad Screaming Old Man returns to a perennial Lewis theme: the fear and the hope (but mostly the fear) that comes with growing old. This harks back to early favourites like Back When I Was Four. No surprise, then, to find that, musically, this song is more like the Lewis of ten or twelve years ago – thrashy guitar chords and words that trip over each other to convey their message. It sounds like Mclusky with a creative writing degree and a New York accent.
Back To Manhattan is a sprawling urban ramble of a song. Over a polished but simple guitar phrase that recalls Doug Yule-era Velvet Underground, Lewis narrates a pre-breakup walk home in a series of clipped phrases that are individually banal but over eight minutes add up to significantly more than the sum of their parts. A different era is mined for inspiration on Avenue A, Shanghai, Hollywood. Caitlin Grey takes over on lead vocals as well as providing a peppy, new wave keyboards in a song that sounds like a meeting of minds between Blondie and the Moldy Peaches.
Self-deprecation has always been a hallmark of Lewis’ humour, and Outta Town plays like an elongated punchline, where the joke is on the narrator and his lack of ability to cope with his partner’s absence. The humour is further condensed – and and the sentiment behind it made more poignant – by the revelation that the partner has only been away for a day and a half. Another song played for laughs is Support Tours, which, for all its pithiness, makes a valid point about the difficulties faced by professional musicians. ‘I’m a working class musician with no funding in my country,‘ Lewis sings, and it’s funny because it’s true. Slightly less explicit is Have A Baby, which comments on expectations, priorities and the difficulties of balancing life as Jeffrey Lewis with a more ‘normal’ kind of existence. It culminates in a wonderfully ironic stadium-rock climax.
The most lyrically ambitious song here is The Pigeon, a spoken-word retelling of Poe’s ‘The Raven’ from the point of view of a Jewish New Yorker. Full of Yiddish expressions and convoluted, deliberately forced rhymes, it could easily fail in the hands of a less experienced songwriter. But Lewis gets the tone just right and, with the song’s squally guitar backdrop, leaves us with something akin to the Velvet Underground’s The Gift, had it been written by Woody Allen rather than Lou Reed.
It says a lot for Manhattan that there is no dip in quality for the two vinyl-only bonus tracks, one of which is a hilarious defence of British food. In fact, the album is so strong throughout, without any of the throwaway tracks that sometimes appear on anti-folk records, that it could easily lay claim to being one of Lewis’ most consistent. It is certainly one of his best, and confirms its author as one of the most intelligent, funny and interesting American songwriters in any genre.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Manhattan is out now and available worldwide.
Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts will be at End of the Road festival in the UK, the weekend of Sept 2-3-4, 2016
UK Tour Dates
Thurs April 28th – Belfast, N IRELAND – McHugh’s (Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival)
Fri April 29th – Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, IRELAND – Regional Cultural Centre (Distorted Perspectives Festival)
Sat April 30th- Dublin, IRELAND – Upstairs@ Whelans
Sun May 1st -West Cork, IRELAND – Connollys of Leap
Mon May 2 – London UK – DIY Space
Tues May 3 – Oxford UK – tbc
Wed May 4 – Ramsgate, Kent UK – Ramsgate Music Hall