Manhattan is Jeffrey Lewis’s seventh studio album for Rough Trade, and his first since 2011’s A Turn In The Dream-Songs.
But the Lower East Side Renaissance man – apparently as unsleeping as his NYC hometown – has certainly not been on sabbatical for the past four years. Far from it: since his last LP, Lewis has played over 555 (!!) live shows (ranging from living rooms to Radio City Music Hall, supporting Pulp); released a collaboration album with Peter Stampfel, a three-song single entitled WWPRD (for What Would Pussy Riot Do) and a self-released album as Jeffrey Lewis & the Jrams; created and published both a series of zines in which he adapted Sonic Youth songs into sonnet form (naturally entitled Sonnet Youth) as well as two issues of his acclaimed comic Fuff. He has also illustrated several books and toured the US lecturing on the comic The Watchmen.
Lewis’s new album, produced with John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Phosphorescent, The War On Drugs), is both named after and directly inspired by New York City, but is no regionalised curio. Like contemporaries The Mountain Goats or The Decemberists, it’s the very specificity of the details Lewis uses to depict his characters and situations that make his songs so evocative, and so emotionally rich. While we may not have grown up five blocks away from where we now reside in the LES, like Lewis does, we’ve all encountered our own Scowling Crackhead Ian, stoop-loitering or not; we’ve all had a sad, aimless breakup conversation like Lewis’s in Manhattan, even if ours didn’t take us over the Williamsburg Bridge, through a graffitied train-yard, and across a crowded skate park on Avenue A.
While Manhattan’s Lower East Side/East Village and environs is no longer the creative hotbed of its half-apocryphal, legendary past, Lewis carries an undimmed torch once borne by other musical polymaths with their roots in the area, like The Holy Modal Rounders, Silver Apples, The Fugs, and David Peel, with the great poets of NYC’s past, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, serving as eternal guiding stars. Lewis’s own background is studded with New York cultural history: one uncle was a notorious radical theatre activist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, one uncle a well-known composer, and his cousin, Perry Robinson, is a renowned free-jazz clarinetist and memoirist.
More than any of his previous records, Manhattan finds Lewis grappling with the weight of his own history, the history of his neighbourhood and his city, and the sometimes-overwhelming emotional burdens we all bear moving amidst human relationships. The production underlines his narrative, punctuated with episodes of sonic chaos as city noises, tape effects, guitar squalls, and monotone chanted refrains pile up and threaten to overtake Lewis’s vocals; elsewhere, big, warm guitars bring accessibility into the sweetness of love song Outta Town; Have A Baby is staccato and unrelenting, like the lyrics’ biological clock.
Manhattan, then, is both about and not about New York City; Lewis is both a lifelong resident and a detached observer of his hometown; but ultimately, it’s a simple treatment of human moments by one of our sharpest songwriting talents.
Support comes from Wedding. Wedding is the project of Thomas Craig and New Yorker Zachary Taube, joined by a live band. The group began during the pair’s time living in Berlin; now based in Manchester, they are set to release their debut EP on RIP Records in October. ‘Infectious, lo-fi garage pop,’ was Indie Shuffle’s view, while Clash wrote ‘songwriting of a rare intimacy’.