Review of Jeffrey Lewis and The Junkyard's album 'Em Are I released through Rough Trade.
As difficult to believe as it may be, particularly for those still discovering his emancipated worldly wise genius, ''Em Are I' is actually Jeffrey Lewis' twentieth collection of songs and stories to date. Indeed, the word "prolific" probably doesn't do him justice; instead, it's more about the lifestyle, his observational wit suggesting that if he wasn't writing music, making records or engaging in his other favourite pastime, creating and designing comic books, there'd be little else left for him to do.
While Lewis may not have arrived on these shores to the same fanfare fellow NYC anti-folk artists such as Adam Green and Kimya Dawson (nee The Moldy Peaches) received at the turn of the decade, there's little doubt that he has achieved the kind of longevity most commercially aspiring musicians could only dream of, not to mention building up a fan base that seems to grow with every subsequent release and tour, of which there have been plenty. Of course there's always been an air of mystery surrounding him too, particularly in that no one is quite sure what it is that drives Jeffrey Lewis on to creating such original, humorous doctrines that have described oral sex in the Chelsea Hotel, creeping brains and stalking Will Oldham, not to mention tirades against the music industry like 'Don't Let The Record Label Take You Out To Lunch'.
Here on ''Em I Are', the subject matter is as disparate yet enigmatic. There is no doubt that Lewis' folky overtones are clouded by an inherent punk rock attitude - no less typified by last year's covers collection '12 Crass Songs' - and this becomes apparent on the opening 'Slogans' which is more John "Woody" Mellors than the countrified assignations of say, Woody Guthrie. Here, Lewis heads off into an acerbic rant that mentions the Stones fighting the Beatles, Hulk Hogan and Santa Claus at various points over a shambolic guitar-led tune that is more CBGBs than Sidewalk Café in its execution.
That's not to say the pace isn't restored to a more customary rather than breakneck level, as 'Roll Bus Roll' and 'Broken Broken Broken Heart' amble by, the latter seemingly inspired by a relationship break-up of all things, something not normally associated with Jeffrey Lewis songs it has to be said, while the former heralds something of a reminiscent look back through his past via the passenger window of a bus. If anything, Lewis displays a sweeter side here than many would have been aware of before, and even if this doesn't last the course of the album, at least shows a privately vulnerable side to his muse.
Nevertheless, what most of us have come to expect from Jeffrey Lewis is sharp-witted humour and single-line put downs, and on 'The Upside-down Cross' - co-written by his brother Jack - and 'Good Old Pig, Gone To Avalon', he's crafted two of his finest pieces of lo-fi folk to date. Marriage guidance councillors would do well to digest 'The Upside-down Cross' and its sad lament while "the pig who got so big he thought he was a jeep." could be made into a film; or at least a cartoon, something which no doubt Lewis has already conspired to achieve; such is the engrossing content of its highly amusing story.
As Jeffrey Lewis records go, ''Em Are I' sits in the upper quartile as far as quality and content goes. Some will probably see it as his most poignant, self-deprecating collection of songs to date, but even when the moral behind the story is of a more serious nature, Lewis still manages to inject an underlying sense of vitriolic sarcasm that sets him apart from all other self-proclaimed poets of his generation. It's another worthwhile addition to an already burgeoning catalogue of low-budget, yet high-standard ditties that shows no sign of letting up for the foreseeable future.