Under the Blacklight is Rilo Kiley
's fourth full-length album. Released in August of 2007, it is the band's first record to enjoy major label
support going into the studio (2004's More Adventurous
being self-produced and then picked up by Warner
and released as vanity imprint Brute/Beaute
- Silver Lining
- Close Call
- The Moneymaker
- Breakin' Up
- Under the Blacklight
- Smoke Detector
- The Angels Hung Around
- Give a Little Love
The album is generally considered to represent Rilo Kiley's most significant change in sound to date, and as is typical for these things, has drawn some hostility from the band's established fanbase.
I considered myself part of said established fanbase, and on release the album did indeed draw hostility from me. I've come around to appreciate it, though, and to explain that process, it's useful to do a little bit of band history. Their first EP was really of a bunch of kids fucking around in a studio, and it had an endearing, goofy quality. Never again would they peddle the whimsy seen on The Frug and Glendora, or the camp melodrama of Teenage Love Song and Steve. As soon as the second pressing, they dropped Steve. By the third, Teenage Love Song and Glendora. For the longest time, they'd never play The Frug. The one time I've seen them live was the first show in years they did it, headlining the Sunset Junction street fair in their home neighborhood of Silver Lake in Los Angeles. It's a ton of fun. Some old friends of the band came up on stage to backup sing/clap/dance. Afterwards, Jenny talked about having wanted to get distance from the song for a while. In fairness, it was used on Dawson's Creek.
Anyway, iirc, the more intentionally produced Take Offs and Landings went into the studio with leads Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett a couple, and it really shows. Which is not to say it's lovey-dovey, it's pretty much an album about everything that can go wrong with a relationship - addiction, infidelity, unwillingness to settle down, overanalysis, happiness leading to an ultimately unsatisfying life, etc. The thing is, these songs aren't so much about experiencing the worst, they're about fearing or coming to terms with the possibility of it. As I read it, it's an album about the Damocles' dilemma at the heart of modern romance - entering into relationships in full knowledge that they will probably, at some point, end, we spend their duration either wondering what's going to cause the breakup, or worse, knowing it. Also, airplanes. It's kinda an album about airplanes. The fun part of the album is to guess which lines are specifically written about one of the leads by the other (and which one). You realize that at least some of this album consists of someone singing their lover's critique of them as a partner, and that's got to be weird.
This effect was even more intense on their next album, The Execution Of All Things, during the production of which they broke up. It's an amazing breakup album, just listen to it. The tracklist ordering is mixtape-tight, and a little mixtape-obvious, but it's too fucking glorious. If anyone ever breaks my heart, I'm totally looking forward to putting this album on repeat afterwards.
The thing is, when it came to work on the following album, More Adventurous, they were still going for that Rilo Kiley Classic flavor of intelligent longing, with undercurrents of fatalism, but now that they don't have skin in the game, it really felt like their heart wasn't in it. Portions for Foxes came out well, and Does He Love You covers all the Classic bases in terms of subject matter, but it's glaringly literal, and it reads clearly as a made-up story about someone else. I Never is an empty cottonball. Grasping around for a new Big Thing to replace doomed love as an anchor, there are several songs about the fact that people do sometimes die, though again they're inartfully direct. The best of these takes on war to boot, erecting a set of references and gliding their referent from love to war and back again in the middle of verses - still a little high-concept, but well executed. Not so well executed is the album's other gesture towards war, the lead single It's a Hit, which awkwardly mashes up vague resentments about music these days and Iraq.
So that was kind of disappointing, but after that both Jenny and Blake seemed to get back to their strengths (and songwriting styles, which are interesting to hear separately) in side projects. On solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat, Jenny tapped her main personal-experience reserve, productively mining the childhood relationship to her parents she'd touched on before. Meanwhile, Blake's been getting his narrative twang on in - superior, imo - side project The Elected.
So that brings us up to Under the Blacklight. I'd been worried about this one. Sitting in a boutique I read an interview in Filter, where they said it'd be a pretty different sound, and they were working with producers from other genres, and hip-hop beat vendors, and etc. and I said oh no. And then I felt my fears confirmed when I heard the lead single, the anemic "dance" track The Moneymaker, which is kinda fucking awful. At my most charitable, I'll say it's remix bait. But while the rest of the album remains relatively experimental, with instruments and the grain of the production polish changing significantly from track-to-track, it's easier to recognize the band's regular tics and themes, even buried under the Bratz-ass synths of Give a Little Love.
Which is not to say that this is a "Classic" work, or even that it's among their better work in general. But really, my problem with More Adventurous was that they were trying that without heart, so I can't fault them for trying to do something new, and the new style seems to suit their current dynamic pretty well. They don't rely so much on the slice-of-life set pieces, and where they come up they're more often in the third person. Relative to the other albums, the instrumentation and arrangement carries a lot of weight that the lyrics used to, and the whole effect is a little glittery and slick and cocainey - even the countryier bits seem more Nashville and less alt - but in an ultimately charming way. I've heard a lot of comparisons to Fleetwood Mac, and I imagine that's a pretty good lead to follow when the romantic tension behind your sun-soaked alternayuppie folk-rock band falls apart.
So ultimately, if you're looking for Rilo Kiley Classic, that band seems to have forked into side projects, the name continuing on as a worthy, if experimental, side project of those.