What is Jeffrey Lewis afraid of? This graphic artist/New York Times columnist/songwriter can dash off hyper-literate, clever verses at lightning speed, wrapping weirdo meditations on death and reincarnation in neat couplets, skewering every aspect of hip modern life – and often himself – with piercing insights. Yet while intelligence is his stock in trade, Lewis doesn’t seem to trust it. Even in his smartest songs – the deconstruction of dysfunctional love in “Broken Broken Heart,” the consideration of the limits of human perception in “To Be Objectified,” the agnostically giddy “Whistle Past the Graveyard”– balance philosophy with self-conscious naivete. In fact, it’s almost as if he’s embarrassed by the verbal tricks he can perform and retreats, after a particularly good one, into Beat Happening-ish studied simplicity. For instance, he’s the kind of writer who can use big words like “voracious” (three times in “Bugs and Flowers”), then back up to chide himself for pretension. Or follow up a graceful verse about the afterlife of bugs and flowers with a third-grader’s chorus of “These flies and insects…are really weird.” And though he must be aware of how agile and multifaceted and capable his mind is, he sometimes seems like he’d rather not be bothered with it. “It would just a relief to see…I’m just a natural thing,” he says in “To Be Objectified.”
Lewis’ main topic is the one that has stumped smart people since the stone age: why are we alive and why do we die? He avoids the issue in Seinfeldian “songs about nothing” a couple of times, the charming “Roll Bus Roll” early on in the album, the goofy “Good Old Pig, Gone to Avalon” later on the disc. Still, “the big shadow,” as he calls it in “Roll Bus Roll” is always there, whether obliquely, as Lewis ponders losing his hair (“To Be Objectified”), more directly, as in “Whistle Past the Graveyard,” or cosmologically in “Bugs & Flowers” (where he struggles with the problem of how to fit all those dead bugs into the afterlife). None of these songs are morbid, but rather dance around the subject in skittery nervously humorous rhymes. Here, for instance, is Lewis in “Whistling Past the Graveyard,” “Death’s like mystery gift wrapped up in a box/sent from infinity and stamped with question marks/everybody’s got theirs and I’ve got mine/people shake it, weigh it, discuss it all the time.”
Lewis’ strengths are primarily lyrical. The musical arrangements, though good enough not to distract, tend to disappear into the songs. One exception comes when J. Mascis lets a scorching guitar solo rip in “Little Pig, Gone to Avalon,” and another in brother Jack Lewis’ (who plays bass on ‘Em Are I) “The Upside Down Cross.” This is the disc’s most exciting track on strict musical terms, its droning, krautish pulse electrifying funny verses about altruistic couples on foreign soil. It would be a good song, even if the lyrics weren’t so good, and you can’t say that about all of these cuts.
Lewis closes with the wonderful “Mini-Theme: Moocher from the Future,” a fanciful tale of time travel, interspecies love, and the power of imagination. The song spends most of its five minute duration in the colorful, wildly creative company of Mini, a character who, in my favorite verse, “rode a black hole to a magnetic pole/rode a dinosaur so long that it turned into coal/made the coal a diamond/said this is not my best friend/turned the jewel back into a dinosaur again.” Yet it also dips briefly into reality, visits the shampoo-stained, dingy apartment where Lewis imagines these images. It is the one instance where Lewis seems completely unconflicted about letting his natural imagination and intelligence run and, not by coincidence, is the almost’s most magical moment.