The first time I heard Rilo Kiley, it started with a gentle arpeggio on electric guitar, joined quickly by a power chord and drums. An urgent lead guitar cascade overlaid a compelling chord progression, with another guitar playing the notes from the initial arpeggio, this time thicker and a little distorted. Then five rapid strums on dead strings, and slamming back down into the power chord. And when Jenny Lewis’s vocal finally arrived, thirty-five seconds in, it was with one of the best lines she’s ever written: “There’s blood in my mouth ’cause I’ve been biting my tongue all week.”

I was hooked. Lucky for me, the rest of the verse delivered on the promise of that first line:

I keep on talkin’ trash but I never say anything
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left

And again those five rapid strums, and SLAM! So begins “Portions For Foxes”, a breathtaking rock song about the struggle for true companionship. Lewis insists that she’s bad news, that her lover is bad news, and yet their togetherness offers her “another form of relief.” Her vocal is nothing short of astonishing in places, especially when she growls a fierce “C’MERE!”

Album cover from More Adventurous

The title calls back to Psalms 63:9-10, “But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth. / They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes.” The implication in the psalm is of God’s benevolent protection, but Lewis has something more sinister in mind. In this song, “we’ll all be portions for foxes.” She and her lover seek each other’s soul, but each is already a “walking corpse”, and whatever their intentions, destruction ensues in the guise of damage control. These foxes may partake of the biblical symbol, but their inclusion in a dark love song is no accident — foxes in our world, in a romantic context, are the attractive and the dangerous, the bad news that we like anyway.

The song comes from their 2004 album More Adventurous, which I knew I needed once I’d fallen in love with the single. I was delighted to find that it is more adventurous indeed than your average rock album. There are several rock and roll songs in the “Portions For Foxes” vein, with similarly intense moments to that “C’MERE!” “Love and War (11/11/46)” tells the story of a girl whose grandfather fought in World War II, whose pain, trauma, and struggle she sees reflected in her broken relationship. At the end of every verse, Lewis escalates to a crescendo — not a scream, but a note that tips into distortion with its fervor.

Another stunner is “Does He Love You?”, narrated by a woman who we come to discover is betraying her friend, having an affair with her friend’s husband. The tune starts out with sweet woodwinds (well, mostly synths programmed to sound like woodwinds) and a plaintive vocal, but by the time it’s built to its revelation, Lewis’s voice is heavily processed and the guitars scream bitter recrimination around her.

Yet Rilo Kiley isn’t content to fill their album with their rock and roll prowess. Instead, the record is by turns rock, folk, country, and even soul. The title track rings with pedal steel and glockenspiel, and Lewis channels her best Emmylou Harris, no fuzz or grunge anywhere. She even breaks into a silver-toned harmonica solo before and after the final verse. “The Absence Of God” reworks the riff from Jim Croce’s “Operator” into a lovely folk tune whose lyrics offer wisdom from various corners of the narrator’s life, resolving sadly into her propensity for self-destruction despite it all. “I Never” is a heartfelt blue-eyed soul serenade, whose earnest and repetitive declarations of love would tip over into self-parody if it wasn’t sung with such total commitment.

It’s not just musical diversity on display here either — Lewis’s songwriting can be structurally daring too. At one point “I Never” repeats the word “never” 27 times in a row before finally resolving into “loved somebody the way that I love you.” “Accidntel Deth” tells an extended story in each of its long verses before returning to the chorus. Boldest of all is “A Man/Me/Then Jim”, which true to its title switches viewpoints after every chorus. The first speaker is at a funeral for what turns out to be the third speaker, and the second speaker ends up eliciting a story from yet another viewpoint, that of a sad telephone solicitor. They’re all luminously tied together by what the song calls “the slow fade of love.”

Finally, two songs meditate on the then-recent death of Elliott Smith. “Ripchord”, the only song without vocals or lyrics by Lewis, hearkens to Smith’s style with Blake Sennett’s thin vocal delivery and tinny acoustic guitar. “It Just Is” closes the album with a resigned tone — Lewis refuses to grant Smith’s violent demise “sorrow or inspiration”, calling it instead a loss that “just is”.

Death haunts much of this album — suicide shows up in “A Man/Me/Then Jim”, an executioner stalks through the multiple meanings of “It’s A Hit”, and of course “Accidntel Deth” is an extended meditation on the topic. In its totality, More Adventurous is beautiful, sad, and independent. As its narrators discover, “living is the problem”, and while there may be no solution, music like this is about as close as it comes.