When a friend of mine wondered what esteemed rock critic Robert Christgau would have to say about the new Rilo Kiley record, remembering that he’d written quite a lengthy love-letter to the band’s fetching frontwoman, Jenny Lewis, a few years back, I informed her that he’d given the record four stars in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. “Really?” she responded, “He’s just got a boner for her.” And while I won’t question ol’ Christgau’s motives (or wonder what happens in his pants), I will say that, for my money (of which I don’t have much, but play along for a second) Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight is the most disappointing record of 2007.
The band’s fourth full-length, which comes after a somewhat lengthy hiatus during which Lewis and guitarist Blake Sennett each released generally well-received albums with their side-projects, seems to exist solely to communicate that Rilo Kiley is no longer the easily digested indie-pop band they once were. This, of course, would be fine, if only they had any idea what the hell they want to be instead, or, for that matter, if they had the musical vocabulary to pull off other styles without the whole thing seeming quite so amateurish and forced. Things start out innocuously enough, with ‘Silver Lining’, which is neither terribly inspiring nor nearly as embarrassing as much of what follows. The much-discussed ‘Moneymaker’ single is a cringe-worthy look at the porn industry, in which Lewis moans suggestively through a vaguely danceable chorus, proudly introducing her newly sexed-up image. ‘Dejalo’ sounds exactly like a Gloria Estefan song, only with worse lyrics (“My mama is an atheist/If I stay out late, she don’t get pissed”), and ‘Smoke Detector’ is a completely inconsequential if well-executed fuzz-pop, while the album-closing ‘Give a Little Love’ is a failed gospel-tinged track on which Lewis has the gall to rock the “like a battlefield” simile. The song ‘15’ marks Lewis’ strongest vocal performance on the record, only it’s a disappointingly surface telling of a story about a 20-something former drug addict seducing a 15-year-old girl. (For a much better version of this song, please find Akon’s ‘Sorry, Blame It on Me’.)
Lewis’ lyrics, even more so than the scatter-brained and ill-advised genre-hopping, are the most upsetting part of the whole record. There’s a lot of talk of Blacklight getting some fairly serious radio play, and while it remains to be seen if that’ll ever actually happen, it does make you sort of yearn for the days of The Execution of All Things, or even More Adventurous, when an awful lot of Kelly Clarkson and Avril Lavigne fans would have been well-served by her proud, inspiring and forthcoming lyrics that revealed an equal amount of hard-won strength and crushing vulnerability.
Even in light of this massive failure of a record, I don’t know if it’s quite time to give up on Rilo Kiley completely. That they seem intent on changing and growing as a band is admirable and probably a good sign. But Under the Blacklight seems to have a sizable chip on its flirtatiously exposed shoulder, a sign of a band so terribly pleased with itself that it’s forgotten one very important point: Simply having a desire to change, to break out of the tidy little box you’ve been placed in by everyone — fans, critics, yourself — for so long is not quite enough. It’s the first step, of course, but for Rilo Kiley it will ultimately be meaningless if they don’t regain the focus, impeccable taste and, perhaps most important of all, unflinching honesty of their stellar past.