There’s a lot of implied movement on The Voyager, the third solo LP by former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis. The record’s namesake, after all, is the only manmade object to reach interstellar space; its title track is one of several on The Voyager that delineates the differences between moving forward and moving on. Lewis did both in the time that passed between The Voyager and the release of her last solo disc, 2008’s Acid Tongue: The new record deals with rocky relationships and many forms of escapism, lyrical subjects derived from the demise of Lewis’ old band, and the death of her estranged father. Ten years after Rilo Kiley put out its breakthrough album, More Adventurous, she’s gone from penning death-obsessed songs to being touched by actual loss, and that’s heard in The Voyager.
Removed from the house-party jam sessions of Acid Tongue and the goofier cohabitation rock of I’m Having Fun Now (Lewis’ album-length duet with boyfriend and longtime musical collaborator Johnathan Rice), The Voyager finds Lewis in a reflective mood. She’s speeding into the future while gazing wistfully into the past, making good with her pa on the jangly barnstormer “You Can’t Outrun ’Em” and running the expatriate’s tale “Late Bloomer” through a Paisley Underground filter. Produced by Ryan Adams (with an assist from Beck on the shuffling standout “Just One Of The Guys”), the album equates the singer-songwriter’s own maturation with that of ’80s output from album-rock icons like Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty. The Voyager feels especially like an ancestor of the Mac’s Tango In The Night, a record whose glittery fingerprints are all over the expansive soundscape Lewis and Adams crafted for “She’s Not Me.”
That newfound sophistication does nothing to dull the emotional punch of Lewis’ songwriting, though it makes an odd fit for some of her more off-the-cuff couplets. As a lyricist, she still walks the razor’s edge between too coy and too verbose: “Late Bloomer” wisely works only in suggestion; three tracks later, Lewis struggles to cram “And John’s been avidly reading Slash’s bio / There was a TV set smashed out in front of his room” into two lines of the corny travelogue “Aloha & The Three Johns.” An acute observational eye has long been one of Lewis’ strong suits, and that extends to tracks like “Just One Of The Guys,” which serves as her definitive answer to that worn-out music-journalist saw, “What’s it like to be a woman in rock?”
But part of the growth The Voyager displays is in its indirectness—and there’s no better example of that than the title track and the cosmic analogy at its core. It could be about Lewis living the same nomadic life as her dad; it could be about Rilo Kiley’s fiery exit from the scene. (Unlike its real-life analogs, this “Voyager goes up in smoke.”) Not knowing is why we send unmanned objects like Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 hurtling through space, and not knowing opens up The Voyager to a world of all-grown-up interpretations.