Pictures of Success
by ALICE BOLIN
Let us now sing in praise of Jenny Lewis: she of the auburn bangs, she of the sweet hope vocal, she of the snow-globe collection I read about once, the child stardom, the pretty sad, she the musical descendent of Robert Smith and Linda Ronstadt, which for our purposes will be a good thing.
She is the heroine of a certain story, one in which hard work pays off gradually in immense success. This is a melancholy kind of story — it maps a drift from coolness and authenticity that perfectly correlates to “growing up.” Lewis formed her band Rilo Kiley with Blake Sennet in the late ‘90s, and they released their first full-length album, Take Offs and Landings, on Barsuk Records in 2001. They were discovered by Barsuk band Death Cab For Cutie, which is narratively perfect. Both bands are exemplars of a musical ethic that is now out of date, only a little over ten years later: one which is somehow both lo-fi and mannered, in which sentiment is too plain to be trusted.
But a lot of people believed it back then, and a surprising amount still do. With RKives, a collection of B-sides and unreleased material that is the band’s first release in seven years, Rilo Kiley adoration that once lay dormant has returned, intensified by nostalgia. In her review of RKives for Pitchfork, Carrie Battan mentions the influence that Lewis and Rilo Kiley had on today’s indie artists like Waxahatchee and Best Coast, and she also explains how Rilo Kiley and proto-social networking platform LiveJournal are synonymous in her mind. There’s something poignant in that association, something that explains some of the emotions that RKives is stirring — the music of Rilo Kiley wakens the inner Livejournal user in all of us.
I first heard Rilo Kiley when I was a freshman in college. I was only sixteen and was weird and lonely — I picture me then as one of J.D. Salinger’s hyper-sensitive whiz kid fuckups, which, incidentally, is still pretty much the way I think of myself. I related to the voice I heard in Take Offs and Landings, which is full of an adolescent longing to create a new present, to say smart and interesting things, to leave behind this life that is lame and boring and provincial, to be something profound.
There is plenty of intellectualizing on Take Offs and Landings, most of it embarrassingly earnest. “I get inspiration from art, science, and agriculture,” Lewis said in an interview at the time, not at all ironically. “Science vs. Romance,” simultaneously the most cerebral and self-pitying song on the album, whines that “we’re not robots inside a grid.” The song ends with Lewis plaintively cooing, “Zeroes and ones,” and you can’t help but admire their commitment to the metaphor. “Don’t deconstruct and then fill me in,” she sings later on to the pretentious, intransigent other that haunts most of the album. To paraphrase Cher Horowitz, Intro to Literary Criticism rears its ugly head.
Getting sick of your hometown is what late adolescence is all about, and Take Offs and Landings describes that strandedness, the craving for movement. Unlike their second album, The Execution of All Things, which chronicles a post-apocalyptic journey from the West Coast to the center of the country, Take Offs spins its wheels, languishing at the edges of the Pacific Ocean. There is an obsession, evident in the album’s title, with cars, planes, and infrastructure, but it is in the abstract—travel is only an idea, either to be longed for or resented. “And the freeways,/They go coast to coast./They’ve taken away all my good friends,” Sennet sings in the hidden track that closes the album.
The lack of mobility in Take Offs and Landings causes more than frustration — there is a dread in these songs that exudes from the landscape. Rilo Kiley’s teenage alienation cannot be separated from the band’s origins in southern California, a place where the American project is pushed to its physical and figurative limit. As Joan Didion wrote, there is in California “some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” This translates to Rilo Kiley’s bitching that “traveling blows when you’re out of road.” And this is not only an exhaustion or fear of failure — as much as California is many extremes embodied, there is always the risk of implosion. “They say California is a recipe for a black hole,” Lewis sings on “Pictures of Success.” Didion: “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself.”
The Rilo Kiley story is a uniquely Californian one, as long as we are equating California with the indolent apocalypse. Lewis and Sennet, after all, were child actors, representing to the popular consciousness the most exploitive and traumatizing forces of the entertainment industry. And from these ignominious origins we chart Rilo Kiley’s rise and fall from grace. They traveled from California to Nebraska, where they released their lauded, emo-tinged second album on Saddle Creek records, and then back to California, where they put out two slick and accessible records on a major label. We think of Los Angeles as where people go to sell out, to trade their cult caché for money. That is one way to see it: Rilo Kiley is just another indie band that was a victim of its own success. It became uncool to like Rilo Kiley — if it ever was cool.
That’s the thing: their ubiquity cannot completely explain it. Even during their Take Offs era when they flew under the radar, it seemed like the backlash was imminent. Before the album was even released, their music was featured on Dawson’s Creek, injuring their indie cred before they even developed a following. Do I need to mention that Pitchfork really, really hated Take Offs and Landings? They found it shallow and insipid, essentially too boring to criticize — their harshest attack was “Jenny Lewis’ vocals really drive me crazy.” “I hate Rilo Kiley because she’s good looking and her music sucks,” my friend Molly recently said in an e-mail, stubbornly refusing to learn that Rilo Kiley is a band and not a person. She is on to something, though—their prettiness is the real problem. They are guilty of that unforgivable indie sin, being easy to like.
This is part of why I feel so tenderly toward Take Offs and Landings — if it were cool, I doubt I would have ever identified with it. I was a precocious child, and it is a precocious album, mixing grunge, country, beachy fifties rock, and electronic beep-boops. “Don’t Deconstruct” is a waltz that recalls the Beatles’ “For No One,” right down to the French horn solo. In school, I often felt like I was behind because I was ahead — it was hard not to hold on to the feeling that I was special, a wunderkind, which in some ways hindered my learning to be a normal grownup. In the same way, Take Offs and Landings’ naïve intelligence makes it all the more dorky and vulnerable.
I remember reading an interview with Rilo Kiley in Jane around the time that their fourth album, Under the Blacklight was released. In it, they said that “Science vs. Romance” was among the songs that they would never play live again because it just didn’t feel “relevant” anymore. The band outgrew the earnestness of Take Offs, but somehow I never did. The lonely sixteen-year old is still a huge part of me, which is a venerable cliché for a reason. This is why the release of RKives is such a welcome palliative for all the faux grownups of my generation. Who doesn’t want reassurance? As Sennet sings in the Take Offs and Landings’ final track, “We’ve been waiting all year/For someone to just say/Everyone fucks up, it’s going to be okay.”
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Taylor Swift and living alone. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
"Well, You Left" - Rilo Kiley (mp3)
"Emotional" - Rilo Kiley (mp3)