Varieties of Petulant Manhood

A friend of mine recently sent me the September issue of SPIN. Somehow I managed to miss Strawberry Saroyan’s cover story on Rilo Kiley. For reasons I don’t fully understood, Rilo Kiley occupies a strangely important place in my life. Now, I shouldn’t exaggerate: I don’t think about Rilo Kiley every day, or even every month. And though I’m certainly a fan, I can name at least half a dozen I’ve liked at least as much for a longer period of time. (Incidentally, I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to a lot of Yeasayer and Lavender Diamond, thanks to Hua Hsu. I recommend both, particularly Yeasayer.)

There’s something more to my more-than-passing interest in Rilo Kiley, and I think it parellels the way in which chimerical political figures, like a Barack Obama or John McCain, become a vessel for our hopes and aspirations, for ourselves and for our country. So rather than let my fanatical devotion ebb as the band becomes semi-popular, kind of an upper-middlebrow sensation, I see them as representing a lot of different, complicated things, among them: the way the members of my generation are in various ways growing as artists and as adults, and the way we are compromising our values (aesthetic and otherwise) as we climb the greasy pole to success.

And so it’s strangely apposite that the profile, which I found brilliant, was written by a would-be generational spokesperson, who wrote a not very well-regarded early-life memoir that sounds pretty excellent to me. Somehow Saroyan managed to get straight to the heart of a band during its slow-burning dénouement, which is to say to the incredibly strained, tortured relationship between Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennet, two deeply weird, flawed, and possibly very damaged people who are also, in my view, brilliant.

That it is totally bizarro of me to talk about these strangers in this way goes without saying. But again, they’ve become vessels, who embody all of the tensions and dangers that go along with being introspective, thoughtful people who are equally plagued by self-doubt and self-regard. To my chagrin, the profile is behind the SPIN firewall. Most of all, it’s a vivid portrait of Blake Sennett’s descent into petulance. Because of Jenny Lewis’s success as a solo artist, Sennett fears that he’s now playing second fiddle in the band that he started. More than that, he’s frustrated by his own failure to break out on his own, as frontman of The Elected.

Much of this tension and resentment draws from their romantic relationship, which dissolved six years ago and yet continues to have a hold on them both. Despite having portrayed a mouthy, confident kid in a bunch of movies, Lewis had never dated seriously before Sennett. The relationship grew out of their close friendship, and Sennett ended it when he felt smothered and lethargic. Sure enough, Lewis subsequently became an indie pin-up. After feeling left out by Sennett’s new solo project, she flourished on her own, finding new confidence but also, in some sense, hoping to fill Sennett with regret.

Disentangling this stuff is hard: to what extent are you growing and changing for the better, and to what extent are you trying to punish the one you love, or trying to get some kind of rise out of them? One of these things is clearly good and noble. The other is nuts, or at the very least gives us pause. But because Lewis has arrived, it’s Sennett who is left to wallow in self-pity. In the profile, he comes across as a wounded animal, and yet one can’t help but sympathize, at least a little. He can’t be happy for his ex-girlfriend, and he fears for his future. He wears his anxiety, about his music and even about his body, on his sleeve. He cuts an unattractive figure, which of course doesn’t help matters. It’s easy to imagine how he felt about the profile once it appeared.

So yes, we hurt the ones we love.

I was planning on also discussing David Gates’ Preston Falls, but I’ll get to that.