I get impatient with songs about how things are going great. So many sad, ambivalent, or complex songs already use upbeat melodies or a fast pace to make themselves sound more rousing than they would be based only on lyrical content that so many fully upbeat songs — like, say, Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” if one wanted to continue picking on a catchy and harmless decade-only song that one might still kind of loathe — sound like empty overkill. It takes a deceptive amount of skill to write a song about something happy that doesn’t sound kind of insufferable or empty-headed. That goes double if the happy thing is something beyond the heedless rush of love or triumph that informs say, early Beatles songs, or Japandroids. That goes triple, at least sometimes, if an artist used to sing about heavy-duty angst, then got happier as he or she aged, and wants us all to know how serene, centered, and balanced his or her life is now.
Jenny Lewis used to sing about heavy-duty angst, with Rilo Kiley and on her solo records. She still does, on her latest and possibly greatest record, The Voyager. But her songs have taken on a rueful, sometimes slightly detached quality that in no way diminishes their storytelling emotional pull. She also manages to let some light in, both musically and, on “Love U Forever,” lyrically.
“Love U Forever” is a song about being in love. Even the title is spelled out something like a yearbook inscription. In the verses of the song, Lewis sings about stuff that might sound, if not inane, perhaps not material rich in poetic potential: easily identifiable, relatable stuff like getting together with her girlfriends, drinking burgundy wine, getting “a little high” and reminiscing.
Beyond a bouncy intro guitar riff that promises impending rollicking, what makes this song work so surprisingly well are the nuances J-Lew brings to her narrator’s happiness. At the end of her list of things to do, she keeps adding: “I can’t believe I’m getting married in May” — and we might assume her disbelief is wistful, but it’s hard to say for sure. Then, in the chorus: “I could love you forever.” The key word here is could. This is in no way a break-up song; it’s not (as far as I can tell) about the narrator realizing she’s about to make a huge mistake or leaving her intended at the altar, or wanting to change him just a little bit. She gives no directives for how “could” might become “will.” But there is a sweet tentativeness in turning her love hypothetical. The narrator is engaged to be married, and she’s still saying: this could be it. The final verse adds even more ambiguity, observing: “But there are some things money cannot say, like the feeling of hell in a hallway.” So many love songs sound like fantasy; “Love U Forever” sounds like the act of fantasizing.
If it sounds like I’m saying this upbeat love song is great because it’s secretly not all that upbeat, well, I might be kinda-sorta saying that. I’m also saying, though, that this upbeat love song is great because it finds notes and subtleties beyond YES! and YAY! It’s not vital that Lewis express doubt or ambiguity so much as it is that she make this experience sound more specific than just a rush of excitement over seeing old friends and talking about a wedding. It reminds me of Liz Phair’s “What Makes You Happy,” which also approaches being in love from such a specific angle, with such a clear authorial voice, that it makes some old sentiments seem brand new. That’s what listening to Lewis is like these days: hearing an old, familiar friend rephrase and reposition herself as she continues to grow up.