Jeffrey Lewis

A Turn in the Dream-Songs

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Following the splendid career highlight Em Are I, and after a couple of collaborative detours -- the uneven-at-best The Bundles with Kimya Dawson, and the delightfully loopy Come On Board with weirdo folk icon Peter Stampfel -- lovably quirky New York songwriter/cartoonist Jeffrey Lewis returns with a highly likable sixth album full of his characteristic wit, whimsy, sardonic self-deprecation, and transcendental musings. Lewis' regular backing band the Junkyard are absent here (under that billing, at least), as are the occasional bursts of electrified rowdiness they've provided in the past. In their place are a clutch of mostly British indie folk players (including the Wave Pictures' Franic Rozycki, who provides some fine mandolin work throughout), and a bevy of guests -- members of the Vaselines, Dr. Dog, Au Revoir Simone, Misty's Big Adventure, and Schwervon! -- who help flesh out the album's pleasantly loose, vaguely psych-folky vibe, particularly on the tone-setting "To Go and Return," whose spacy, surreal lyric (a somewhat Seussian nonsense rhyme about the cosmic metaphysics of wish-making) is the source of the album's peculiar title. Despite all the friends he's amassed here, Lewis remains an archetypal loner, a condition which informs many of the album's sharpest numbers, from the lovelorn lambast "How Can It Be?" (featuring peppy, '60s-style backing vocals by the Dr. Dog boys) and the goofy "Cult Boyfriend" (which likens Lewis' romantic boom-and-bust cycles to a rapid-fire list of pop culture obscurities), to "I Got Lost"'s gentle, plain-spoken disquisition on disconnection, and "When You're by Yourself"'s wryly tender dissection of the practical logistics of loneliness -- not to mention the hyperbolic shaggy-dog suicide saga "So What If I Couldn't Take It Anymore." (As usual, though still impressively, these songs rarely, if ever, come across as bitter or overly self-pitying; Lewis hasn't lost his knack for balancing depressed and depressing subject matter with insightfulness, sincerity, levity, and charm.) All that time alone must give Lewis plenty of opportunity for deep thinking, which might explain the homespun, slightly stoned philosophizing of songs like the de facto centerpiece "Krongu Green Slime" -- which uses the odd conceit of a pre-historic novelty manufacturing corporation to reimagine the entirety of evolution, over six protracted minutes of spare acoustic picking -- and, perhaps more cogently, the touching "Time Trades," which moves beyond theorizing to offer some practical advice about long-term life planning. Songs like this -- imaginative, contemplative, densely wordy, slightly silly but unflinchingly earnest -- are arguably Lewis' strongest suit, especially in his recent work, and if the instances on A Turn in the Dream-Songs aren't quite as striking as those on its predecessor, the album still ranks right up there among his best.

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