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Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts invite you on their existential misery tour of Manhattan


Release date: 30 October 2015
Jeffrey Lewis Manhattan
27 October 2015, 11:30 Written by Stephen Jenkins
Bringing together a nihilistic world view, a self-deprecating sense of introspection and a healthy dollop of absurd humour, Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts strike a jolting blow straight to your soul on Manhattan.

If you were having a fulfilled and meaningful 2015 up until now, then you may as well just go ahead and run yourself a cold shower, get in, sit down and let this album rock you back and forth into a nervous breakdown.

Since his early albums of the noughties (The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through and City and Eastern Songs – to mention but a few that are worth your increasingly limited time on this planet) Jeffrey Lewis has been on an unswerving mission to bring his singular world view to those who happen to chance upon him.

Having long drawn comparisons to Daniel Johnston (if such a comparison is even possible or desirable), Jeffrey Lewis is slowly but surely on a trajectory to immortal cult-status. With Manhattan – his twenty-somethingth release – the anti-folk singer-songwriter continues to solidify his own musical personality, one which becomes more complex and intriguing with every album.

Manhattan sets the mood with an ode to one of Lewis' old schoolmates, "Scowling Crackhead Ian", recounting the two Lower East Side natives' time growing up in the same neighbourhood. There are some not-so-heart-warming memories, including one in which Lewis had a switch blade pressed up to his jugular and another involving the song's titular hero “bashing some dude with a chair."

It's on this opening track that you get a first taste of one of Manhattan's primary themes – the examination of how parallel lives in the big city are so inextricably connected by place yet torn worlds apart by individual circumstance. Other prevalent themes are fear, pain, emotional torture and our animal duty to reproduce so that we can keep the whole vicious cycle going. Stay tuned folks.

On "Sad Screaming Old Man", Lewis experiences paranoid fantasies triggered by his elderly neighbour who performs a nightly series of wails and groans. Over a thrash-punk arrangement of fraught guitar and bass, Lewis begs “stop the torture old man and please don't be myself from the future” before the old man gives him a reassuring message: “Well you know, Jeffrey, it's true what you say. I once was like you but I turned out this way... but now all I can do is scream in the darkness, the pain inside 90 years, empty and heartless.” Have you started running that cold shower yet?

There is some romance here, though; no more so than on "Back To Manhattan", a rambling Velvet Underground style tune of slick guitars and cool organ-synths in which Lewis observes the hustling activity of the city at sunset while he walks over a bridge with a girl. A girl who he intends to break up with after the 40 minute walk home. Yeah, when I said there was romance... I lied.

Musically speaking, there are a few hopefully upbeat indie-folk numbers to provide a certain spark to the otherwise bleak lyrical subject matter – something that Jeffrey Lewis has always had a knack for. "Avenue A, Shanghai, Hollywood" is a disjointed expose of day-to-day paranoia while "Outta Town" is a quirky love song which turns into a portrait of someone who is hopelessly useless without constant emotional attention. What starts out as “is it Friday or Monday, without you?” becomes “the recycling starts to pile up and smell, without you”, and finally “why stop that lousy cockroach while he climbs, without you?” It turns out that the 'you' in question has been out of town for a day and a half visiting her mother.

Then there's "Have a Baby", a whirlwind musical tour which catalogues all sorts of idiosyncratic inner-psyches only to turn them into biological machines of reproduction. There's someone deciding what to wear, an obsessive record collector, a die-hard sports fan, a conspiracy theorist, and more, but every voice ultimately gives up their individual concerns by exclaiming “that stuff's important to me, at least until I throw that bullshit out and have a baby".

For all the whimsical nihilism, there is a seriously serious note on "Support Tours", during which a downtrodden yet pluckily-spirited Jeffrey explains the difficulties of trying to survive as a touring musician in modern day America. Incidentally, when this reviewer saw Jeffrey Lewis supporting The Cribs at Manchester Academy 2 in 2006, the singer did ask the audience if anyone had a sofa which he and his band could crash on.

The last stop on Jeffrey Lewis' absurd tour of Manhattan is a hilarious take on Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, in which a pigeon haunts a Yiddish babbling resident of the Lower East Side. Again, a Velvet Underground inspired instrumentation provides the backdrop as Lewis tells the tale of the “meshugenner pigeon", which "still is sitting, still is sitting, sometimes on the counter shitting".

It's in these kinds of moments that you can really appreciate the talent of Jeffrey Lewis as a lyricist. Because throughout all his bleak musings on life and existence in the Big Apple, there is a defiant sense of humour instilled within. Sometimes it's hard to get at, and sometimes it catches you like a switch blade to the jugular wielded by the local drug addict, but there is certainly some fun to be had in the existentially troubled tales of Manhattan.

Not many years go by on this spinning lump without Jeffrey Lewis releasing an album to remind us just how strange and absurd all this life lark is. Let's just be grateful that he does, because it might actually be quite depressing if he wasn't there to remind us to laugh at it all.

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