An overreaching, exhausting disappointment, Jenny Lewis’s Acid Tongue is the first album credited to Lewis alone, beyond her albums as frontwoman for Rilo Kiley and her collaboration with the Watson Twins on 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat. That’s significant in that the album ultimately fails to leave a clear impression of who Lewis is as a solo artist. Rabbit successfully cast her as a country-rock thrush in the Linda Ronstadt vein, while with Rilo Kiley she just as effectively pulled off the Saddle Creek indie style of More Adventurous and the strutting vamp of 2007’s half-great, unjustly reviled Under the Blacklight.
What each of those albums have and what Acid Tongue desperately needs is a consistent aesthetic. Here, Lewis ambles from retro soul on “Bad Man’s World” to straight-ahead AOR on “Fernando” to subdued lounge-pop on closer “Sing a Song for Them” to blues-rock on “The Next Messiah” and “Jack Killed Mom.” While Lewis is undeniably a talented vocalist (the timbre of her voice is beautiful, and she has a distinctive sense of phrasing that can often carry a mediocre song like those on the latter half of Blacklight), few of these styles actually fit her well. Folk-inspired cuts like “Pretty Bird” and opener “Black Sand” fall into her wheelhouse (or would fall into her wheelhouse if their melodies didn’t push into her shakily controlled upper register), but the gauzy “Trying My Best to Love You” unfavorably recalls Dionne Warwick, while “Messiah” and “Jack” are both disasters on which Lewis sounds directionless and out of her depth.
That Lewis has an ear for the various genres she explores here simply doesn’t translate into a mastery of—or even competence in—performing them. But because genre pastiche is the focus of the record, it doesn’t give Lewis many opportunities to showcase her gifts as a vocalist or songwriter. While “Sing a Song” is lovely and understated and the title track incorporates the wit and idiosyncratic way with narrative structure that are the hallmarks of her best writing, too much of Acid Tongue ignores what makes Lewis a compelling artist in favor of empty, not entirely successful style hopping.