Hall of Records

Rilo Kiley: The Execution of All Things

by Michael Tatum

Released: October 1, 2002 (Saddle Creek)

This morning, like every other morning for the past nineteen years or so, I woke up with a medicine hangover. What is that, you may ask? Imagine you spent last night downing generously poured amaretto sours -- maybe three or four over the course of the night, nursing the last until three A.M., whereupon you fell asleep on your sofa, sunlight pitilessly streaming through your window and hitting your face nine hours later because you forgot to shut the blinds before you passed out. That railway spike splitting your head in two, that fog wrapping around your skull like a boa constrictor, that matuinal ball of fire pressing your eyeballs back into their sockets: that's what the psychotropic medicine I take for my bipolar disorder makes me feel every fucking morning. And if I lose the struggle to rouse myself from bed, pull the sheets over my face and fall back asleep, I'll feel worse -- the more sleep a bipolar person allows himself, the worse he'll feel when he finally drags himself out of bed: exhausted, worn out, spacey, moody, depressed. So why do I subject myself to this routine? Because before I was diagnosed, my condition was vastly direr: terribly unstable, unbalanced, and unpredictable. The "manic" side of my personality can be witty, charming, charismatic, and almost alarmingly creative. He can also be reckless, unhinged, cruel, and downright batshit. Once, while I was in the hospital for the removal of an infected salivary gland, I flashed my bemused grandmother, something I didn't remember until my brother accidentally joked about it in my presence years later, temporarily forgetting an agreement he had made with my mother to never bring it up. My junior year of college, completely sober, operating solely under the influence of white dwarfs bursting in supernova in my head, I left my clothes in a dormitory hallway and crawled into a platonic friend's bed -- a friend who somehow was calm and unruffled enough that she quietly asked me to leave, and never brought up the subject again. Maybe if she had reported me to the campus police I would have gotten help sooner -- or maybe I would have been thrown in jail. Indeed, if I hadn't stumbled for an unrelated reason into that UCLA psychiatrist's office in the summer of 1995 -- my then-current girlfriend had concerns about my inability to pay attention while we were playing gin rummy -- I don't know what would have happened to me. But I certainly wouldn't be here with you, telling you this story, writing this piece.

Although its author may not realize it, Jenny Lewis' lyric for Rilo Kiley's "A Better Son/Daughter," the centerpiece of The Execution of All Things, isn't about depression -- if it was, I would shrug and file it away in the same place I do Astral Weeks, an album that never did as much for me as it did for Lester Bangs and millions of others. Instead, "A Better Son/Daughter" concerns itself with the never-ending carousel ride of manic depression: multicolored fiberglass horses rising up and down, endlessly revolving. The song is arranged like a march, but what kind? A victory march? A march toward doom? I say it's the march of inevitability, inexorably dragging you forward: "Sometimes when you're on, you're really fucking on/And your friends sing along and they love you," she sings, perhaps on top of a table in the center of the bar, beer stein clenched in her fist, froth dripping down the sleeve of her blouse. But euphoria has a price, as the pendulum swings: "But the lows are so extreme, the good seems fucking cheap/And it teases you in its absence." So she puts on a show as she's been told a grown-up is supposed to do, faking it for her friends, showing up to work with a smile, alert and positive though every bit of the effort hurts: "You'll laugh and embrace all of your friends/And you'll be a good listener/You'll be honest, you'll be brave, you'll be handsome, and you'll be beautiful." Very few songs can utilize the standard three major chords and make it sounds this painful. Every time the waltz time signature hits the one-beat it feels like a door shutting, and the use of the word "fuck" as a way to emphasize heightened emotion isn't just a literary technique -- people in hypomanic states actually curse more than the average person. Later, in the euphoric "Spectacular Views," Lewis watches "the stars from where the birds make their homes/staring back at us" and lustily cries out, "It's so fucking beautiful." It's a thrilling moment, but a scary one as well, at least for me, because I know where the euphoria comes from -- I've felt it myself, staring up at a post-Impressionist night sky, enchanted by the spiral and twinkle of faraway celestial bodies, the blood in my veins thrumming as my spirit spun through space, drunk on nothing but the biochemical delusion that God had made the heavens only for me to behold.

It's probably unprofessional of me to speculate about Jenny Lewis' mental health -- indeed, one inside joke fellow bipolar types have amongst ourselves is that we are continually diagnosing our friends, family, and the famous (Mel Gibson? Britney Spears? we knew it before you did). But as it happens, Jenny Lewis and I have a little bit more in common than struggles with depression. We both were the children of traumatic divorces, though in Jenny's case, the actual split occurred when she was two. We rarely saw our respective fathers in our teenage years. And while I dived into the world of drama, choir, and musical theatre as a means to create a family to replace the one that I felt failed me at home, Lewis became a child actor, not so much out of personal volition but rather to please her mother, as well as financial necessity -- the precocious daughter's income was their sole support. Lewis doesn't remember this period of her life fondly, however: her only starring role was "Hailey" in the notorious 1989 flop The Wizard, essentially a ninety-minute advertisement for Nintendo and their various products. The limp "climax" at a video game contest unveiled, for the first time anywhere, Super Mario Brothers 3, though as a whole the much-derided film is probably better known for a scene in incredibly poor taste in which Lewis' twelve-year-old character helps her little gang dodge a detective in Las Vegas by shouting out to a crowded casino that their pursuer touched her breast. Years later, she played a main supporting role in the ensemble film Foxfire, which began life as a Joyce Carole Oates novel but became something of a teen-exploitation film, though it garnered a strong lesbian cult following. In a scene that's made the rounds on YouTube, Lewis' virginal character wanders through a grocery store with her friend, slipping condoms on cucumbers, musing about what her first time will be like, copping to masturbation, and singing a double-entendre laden ditty that, for a brief moment, suggests that in the right vehicle she could have been a cine star, something she gave up after her inconsequential seven-second bit in Pleasantville. It was around then that she devoted herself full time to making music with Blake Sennett, another frustrated former child actor, and with bassist Pierre de Reeder and drummer Jason Boesel they formed the quartet Rilo Kiley.

Lewis' boyfriend and songwriting partner from the band's 1999 Initial Friend EP through 2001's Take Offs and Landings and 2002's The Execution of all Things, Sennett shared more in common with Lewis than merely a Hollywood résumé and diminutive stature (the former is 5'5", the latter four inches shorter). Even after perusing a handful of interviews I'm still not sure about his family life, though take note of the rarity "Steve," a nasty ode to Oedipal rage tossed off as a throwaway lounge ditty ("He fucks my mom even when she cries/And I want him very much to die/But he's still alive") that was left of subsequent pressings of The Initial Friend. But Sennett, who was romantically linked to Winona Ryder after breaking up with Lewis (and do you see the pattern here?), is almost surely a fellow traveler in regards to depression: "The thing about Rilo Kiley," Lewis told Nick Hasted of England's The Independent in 2008, "is there are three people in that band who have struggled with depression over the years. And when the three of us are together, we kinda take it south." One imagines it crossed the equator past the Tropic of Capricorn when Lewis and Sennett's relationship hit the skids round about 2002, unquestionably one of the factors that makes The Execution of All Things a great advance over Rilo Kiley's thematically lighter and musically less dynamic early work. The other would be dealing with one's inner demons rather than dancing around them, not just with words, but with vocal delivery -- when Lewis belts the country spoof "Gravity" on the EP she's poking fun of soulful histrionics, but when she began singing her heart she no longer treated sincerity like an ironic joke, exploring a fervent expressiveness her earlier performances only hinted at, yet without sacrificing her wit or verbal eloquence. This paradox is best conveyed in the opening "The Good That Won't Come Out," which begins with a restrained arrangement (pedal steel, glockenspiel, subtle snare), until the band opens up Pandora's Box on the last chorus, thus shorting out the speakers of anyone who peevishly cranked the volume up to ten during the softer first few minutes. The lyric concerns "powerlessness" within one's own misery: standing on the surface of a frozen lake, ruing the disappearing ground even as it melts under your feet. When Lewis later chimes she won't go back to the "assholes" that made her, I don't know whether to laugh or tell her anything's worth a shot.

Sennett takes a lot of flack for his desultory songwriting contributions to this record, but really the problem isn't with his composing (he co-wrote all of Lewis' numbers) but rather his glum tenor, which makes Elliot Smith's mealy mouthed warble sound as passionate as Rod Stewart. But beginning with the jaunty change-up on "The Good That Won't Come Out," it's his arrangements, far more expansive than anything Lewis has (yet) been able to achieve on her own records, that make these songs stick. He knows exactly when to turn up the juice -- the sour Salvation Army horns (actually a synthesizer) that color Lewis' vocal on "A Better Son/Daughter," the deceptively sunny pedal steel line on "Hail to Whatever Your Found in the Sunlight that Surrounds You" (about the emptiness of Christian piety), the swell that burgeons underneath the title track. On that one, after vowing to exploit Omaha's "booming music scene" (thank you, Saddle Creek Records), Lewis envoys God to take away the bears, the air, mountains, rivers, streams, neighbors, kids, all hopes of happiness, everything that matters to you most -- all because of what you did. Which is what? And who is it that's left "all alone with nothing left but sleep?" Sennett? Her wayward father? Her drug-addled mom? Everyone who thought they were listening along to this record in complete sympathy? It doesn't matter -- the point is she ultimately wants you to feel as desolate as she does, if only for a moment, so that nothing's left but you and her and "the guilt and forever wakefulness of the weak." No wonder the penultimate song on the record, the cheery sing-a-long "With Arms Outstretched," about a beau who better speak up before he loses his chance, was the track that earned that spot on HBO's Weeds, as well as that first glimmer of mainstream recognition. That extreme kind of low, so difficult to explain to others, is never worth it -- even if for a little while your friends laugh and embrace you and love you. I should know. Thank you Jenny, for stretching out your arms.

July 18, 2014, Odyshape