My 2014 Soundtrack: Tess Duncan

Tess Duncan

By Tess Duncan

on 12.18.14 in Features

If you told 15-year-old me that one day Jenny Lewis would release an album that wouldn’t be my favorite record of the year, I would have been appalled. In high school, I was a full-fledged Saddle Creek fan, having delved into the label’s collections and acquired everything Lewis had ever pressed to vinyl, burned to a disc or recorded to cassette. You name it, I probably had it.

Up until that point — and putting my 8-year-old obsession with Shania Twain aside — I had only learned about new music the way most tweens did: Through older, presumably wiser, kids. For me, this meant my older brother and sister, and their love of pop-punk meant that my favorite bands included blink-182, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World. I had yet to discover any music on my own. I eventually stumbled upon Rilo Kiley from watching their music video for “Portions for Foxes” on Fuse.

I claimed Rilo Kiley as mine, a signifier of my own personal music taste. They were one of the first bands I took ownership of, one that I found completely by myself. My siblings didn’t listen to any of the Saddle Creek family and neither did anyone (that I knew) in my small, rural hometown. I was enthralled with each record I got my hands on. It felt special and significant to me.

I would eventually come to love and learn about lots of different types of music, but Rilo Kiley gave me my first taste of the heartbreaking, soul-crushing kind. That said, when I look back on Rilo Kiley and Jenny Lewis albums, I can now appreciate their tragic narratives and earnest confessionalism. Some made a bigger impression than others: More Adventurous‘s harmonica-ridden tales of ex-lovers and cheating husbands embedded in quavering string sections and The Execution of All Things‘ folky, lo-fi diary entries about bipolar disorder and alcoholism. But even those that didn’t were home to a handful of songs I connected with. Just last year, when Rilo Kiley’s compilation album rkives was released, I listened to it on repeat, new songs and old — minus that bizarre “Dejalo” remix.

But the songs that truly resonated with me — the ones that shook me to the core — were the ones that captured a sense of loneliness, depression and devastation. The same feelings that resonated with me so strongly when I was a teenager, at a time when I was trying to forge my own musical identity. “Does He Love You?” “Go Ahead.” “A Better Son/Daughter.” “The Good That Won’t Come Out.” “Pictures of Success.” “Happy.” These were songs wherein Lewis honestly offered up her flaws, anxieties and messy emotions; her unflinching vulnerability rattled me. The records with these songs are the ones that live indefinitely on my iPhone, handy because I might suddenly need to hear one of those songs on any given day. Their fervent sincerity, coupled with Americana-inspired instrumentation and Lewis’s twangy, soaring alto, was like nothing I’d heard before. But — without asking for anyone else’s opinion — these tracks became a source of comfort for me. Lewis seemed to know what it meant for life to be a wreck, and she turned it into poetry.

That’s why I wasn’t ready for 2014 The Voyager Jenny Lewis. I wasn’t ready for a sunny, ’70s-pop-rock-tinged album that left forlorn recklessness behind to instead focus on dealing with lady-without-a-baby blues. Sure, the record had some of her signature woebegone elements; she still divulged her secrets and tackled some weighty themes, but it wasn’t the kind of record I wanted to hear from a person who I’d always relied upon to understand me. 2014 wasn’t exactly a stable year for me, and I yearned for an early-2000s-era Lewis; the one that would lay unsettling, chaotic feelings bare with no fucks given.

When I found myself drawn to gloomy music this year, as I always am, it was by artists who felt informed by Lewis’s work, if only peripherally. Allison Crutchfield’s plaintive lyricism on Lean In to It knocked the wind out of me with nearly every track. As she calmly confronted lost loves and former friends, I constantly saw someone in my own life acting out her storylines. The quiet, smoky images of suicide and death on Mitski‘s Bury Me at Makeout Creek had me staring at my computer, eyes welling up with tears as I clicked play over and over. Cayetana put forth overactive anxieties with a pure, youthful rawness on Nervous Like Me, each scene Augusta Koch painted acting as one I’d been in before. These were the albums where I felt the nervous breakdowns of The Execution of All Things, the lovelorn heartache of More Adventurous and the unsure contemplations on inadequacy and mortality of Take-Offs and Landings anew.

I may revisit The Voyager one day and fall completely in love, the way I did with More Adventurous or, currently, Lean In to It. But this was the first Jenny Lewis record that had a complete disconnect for me. For now, 15-year-old me is still carrying the records from years ago that helped her through an uncertain adolescence. The ones that prepared me, now, for the albums that did shape this year, and consequently helped me through my ambivalence toward 2014.

10 Favorite Albums of 2014

Tweens, Tweens
Ex-Cult, Midnight Passenger
Allison Crutchfield, Lean In to It
Cayetana, Nervous Like Me
Priests, Bodies and Money and Control and Power
Mitski, Bury Me at Makeout Creek
Christi, Christi
Radiator Hospital, Torch Song
Chumped, Teenage Retirement
Nots, We Are Nots

10 Most Played Old Albums

The Bobbyteens, Fast Livin’ & Rock N Roll
Buck Owens, It’s a Monster’s Holiday
Bad Banana, Crushfield
Beyoncé, 4
Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, It’s Time For
Big Soda, Demo
Taylor Swift, Red
The Spaniels, The Spaniels
Rilo Kiley, Take-Offs and Landings
Saves the Day, Through Being Cool

10 Favorite Shows of 2014

Ex-Cult at My Mansion, Harrisonburg, Virginia (April 5)
Girlpool, Allison Crutchfield, Radiator Hospital, Slutever, Libbie 2000 at Silent Barn, Brooklyn (October 19)
Priests at the Mohawk, Austin, Texas (June 25)
Skating Polly at Blue Nile, Harrisonburg, Virginia (April 5)
Sheer Mag at Cake Shop, New York (October 17)
Mitski, Told Slant, Johanna Warren at Silent Barn (November 13)
Downtown Boys, joyride!, Nona at Silent Barn (October 3)
Perfect Pussy, Joanna Gruesome, Potty Mouth at Shea Stadium, Brooklyn (August 26)
Punch, Curmudgeon at Death By Audio, Brooklyn (September 7)
Saves the Day at Irving Plaza, New York (December 3)