Music Monday: Rilo Kiley – The Lyrics

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Yes, I have featured Rilo Kiley before. And Jenny Lewis. Rest assured I will almost certainly do so again. Last time I wrote about them, it was right after I saw them live in Austin, and I shared a few songs mostly off their newest album Under the Blacklight, because it was new and because I didn’t yet have their two middle (and best) albums, The Execution of All Things and More Adventurous, in their entirety. So that’s one purpose of this post – to share a couple of their better songs, since Under the Blacklight is…disappointing…in comparison. I’ve gone back and forth on Under the Blacklight‘s quality, and one of those future posts may well focus on why I think it’s not as good as their earlier stuff, but I’m going to try to restrain myself from that here. What I really want to focus on is the quality of Rilo Kiley’s songwriting, which all comes from Jenny and singer/guitarist Blake Sennett. On the other post, Holly commented that she liked RK, but needed to connect more with the lyrics to really love them. Hopefully this will rectify that a bit, because I really didn’t choose songs for that post that exemplify RK’s lyric-writing ability. It may not help, because we may look for different things in lyrics. ;) We’ll see.

The first thing to note is that I rarely care about lyrics that much. I can love a song for years without ever really knowing what the lyrics are, because it’s less important to me than the music. On the other hand, a great lyric can move a song from like to love for me, and what tends to happen with RK is I’m caught by the music and Jenny’s voice, eventually listen to the lyrics, and then am suddenly overwhelmed by how much depth they have. So, anyway, just the fact that I’m highlighting lyrics in a post about music is huge.

The overarching thing I love about RK songs is that they sound like they’re spoken by a particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time. The best ones tell particular stories. It seems counterintuitive, but stories that are concrete and specific are much more universal than those that are non-specific (i.e., if you try to make a story apply to everyone, it ends up applying to no one). RK’s songs aren’t strictly autobiographical, but they feel like they could be. The people in them aren’t necessarily Blake and Jenny (though in some way, perhaps all of them are about Blake and Jenny–at least, some have put forward that theory), but they’re all believable and individuated personas.

The other thing that I love is the evocative quality of the lyrics – in some songs it’s difficult to say “this is exactly what’s going on,” but it doesn’t make the word pictures or the emotions any less real. When I go through some of the songs in a moment, I may not be able to state an objective, literal meaning, but that’s a plus for me. It means that every time I listen, I get different shades. I latch on to different phrases, often, depending on what’s going on in my life. And therefore, different people will surely latch onto different parts of the songs depending on their own experiences. How can the songs be both concrete, and stated above, and evocatively obscure? Because Jenny and Blake are amazing lyricists, who tell stories, but focus on the internal rather than the external. If there’s a narrative, it’s filtered through the eyes of the song’s persona.

My natural tendency is to put the songs I want to look at closely in reverse pyramid order, building up to the best / my favorite ones. But I’m going to acknowledge short attention spans and lead with the best.

note: Many of Rilo Kiley’s songs contain strong language, including some of the ones I’ll look at. I’ve transcribed the lyrics faithfully, so I apologize in advance for any offense caused. The lyrics for “A Man / Me / Then Jim” and “Does He Love You?” are copied from the liner notes, punctuation/spelling and line breaks kept intact; those for “A Better Son/Daughter” are transcribed from listening to the song, so I made up the line breaks, but left out most punctuation in keeping with the tendency in the liner notes for the other albums.

A Man / Me / Then Jim

Rilo Kiley – A Man / Me / Then Jim

i had one friend in high school recently he hung himself with string
his note said
if living is the problem well that’s just baffling
at the wake i waited around to see my ex first love
and i barely recognized her but i knew exactly what she was thinking of
we sat quietly in the corner whispering close about loss
and i remembered why i loved her and asked her why i drove her off

she said
the slow fade of love
its soft edge might cut you
and our poor friend jim
well, he just lived within
the slow fade of love

a woman calls my house once a week she’s always selling things
some charity, a phone plan, a subscription to a magazine
as i turned her down i always do there was something trembling in her voice
i said
hey, what troubles you?
she said
i’m surprised you noticed
my husband he’s leaving and i can’t convince him to stay
and he’ll take our daughter with him she wants to go with him anyway
i’m sorry i’m hard to live with living is the problem for me
i’m selling things they don’t want when i don’t know what you need

he said
the slow fade of love
its mist might choke you
it’s my gradual descent
into a life i never meant
it’s the slow fade of love

i was driving south of melrose when i happened upon my old lover’s old house
i found myself staring at the closed oak door like the day she threw me out
dianna, dianna, dianna i would die for you
i’m in love with you completely i’m afraid that’s all i can do
she said
you can sleep upon my doorstep you can promise me indifference, Jim
but my mind is made up and i’ll never let you in again

for the
slow fade of love
it might hit you from below
it’s your gradual descent
into a life you never meant
it’s the slow fade of love

It’s a fairly rare occurrence for a song to make me want to dig out literary criticism tools, but that’s what “A Man / Me / Then Jim” does – it contains three distinct viewpoints and a non-chronological temporal structure, yet retains thematic unity through repeated phrasing and lack of narrative cues. The following is my interpretation, which has morphed continually over the dozens of times I’ve heard the song, and I’m not sure it’s the correct one, and certainly it’s not the only possible one. The song splits into three sections, corresponding to the three people of the title (yeah, that in itself took me an embarrassing number of listens to figure out). All three are sung in first person by Jenny, but the speaker changes – first “a man,” then “me,” then “Jim.” Each section tells of a time when the speaker came to a crisis of love – finding themselves stuck in “the slow fade of love” which leads in at least one case to suicide.

In section one, the “man” goes to a wake for an old high school friend who committed suicide – his ex-girlfriend reveals that the friend’s name is Jim. In section two, “me” tells about a saleswoman who’s about to lose her husband. She mentions that “living is the problem for me,” a phrase that also appeared in Jim’s suicide note. Section three is Jim himself speaking, visiting an old girlfriend’s home and being rejected by her. It’s possible all three sections are wholly separate (related only thematically), but the repeated phrase in sections one and two and the reference to “Jim” in sections one and three make me believe that it’s all one story, told by different speakers and out of chronological order. I think Jim is the saleswoman’s husband; after experiencing the “slow fade of love” with her and leaving, he tries to rekindle his romance with his ex-girlfriend Dianna. When she refuses, he commits suicide, leading to the funeral of the first section (when the man and his ex-girlfriend discuss their own “slow fade of love”). If that’s the case, there’s also a progression of intimacy with Jim. First, a speaker tangential to Jim’s life (the unnamed man, whose only relationship with Jim is that they went to high school together years ago) learns more about Jim’s suicide from a tangential storyteller (the man’s ex-girlfriend, whose level of intimacy with Jim is unknown, but presumably similar to the man’s). Second, a speaker who is a stranger to Jim (“me”) hears about Jim’s marital troubles from a storyteller intimate with Jim – his wife. Third, speaker and storyteller merge into Jim himself.

And all that’s just the narrative structure. I’ll leave you to think about the evocative nature of phrases like “the slow fade of love” and “its soft edge might cut you.” The first time I heard the song, actually, was at the concert in Austin, and I didn’t like it then. It’s not a good concert song. It’s an intimate space song. It’s a song you have to live with for a while. It’s a song that grows on me in depth and meaning every time I hear it. The bit about the progression of intimacy? That popped out at me a few days ago, after I’d already been thinking on this post for weeks.

Does He Love You?

Rilo Kiley – Does He Love You

[note: the “dear friend” and “yours” that frame this as a letter appear in the liner notes, but are not sung]

Dear friend,

Get a real job, keep the wind at your back and the sun on your face. All the immediate unknowns are better than knowing this tired and lonely fate. Does he love you, does he love you? Will he hold your tiny face in his hands? I guess it’s spring I didn’t know, it’s always seventy five with no melting snow. A married man, he visits me. I receive his letters in the mail twice a week. I think he loves me and when he leaves her, he’s coming out to California!

I guess it all worked out, there’s a ring on your finger and the baby’s due out. You share a place by the park and run a shop for antiques downtown. He loves you, yeah he loves you and the two of you will soon become three. He loves you even though you used to say you were flawed if you weren’t free. Let’s not forget ourselves, good friend. You and I were almost dead. You’re better off for leaving, you’re better off for leaving.

Late at night, I get the phone. You’re at the shop sobbing all alone. Your confession, it’s coming out. You only married him because you felt your time was running out. Now you love him, and your baby. At last, you are complete. But he’s distant and you found him on the phone pleading, saying, “Baby I love you and I’ll leave her and I’m coming out to California…” Let’s not forget ourselves, good friend. I am flawed if I’m not free. Your husband will never leave you, he will never leave you for me.


Jenny prefaced this song at the concert in LA by saying that the homewrecker in this song isn’t her, and it isn’t, but it doesn’t matter. She puts such emotion and heartbreak into it that you believe it’s someone. Jenny’s also an actress, though she’s put most of her acting on hold in favor of the band and songwriting. Her innate performing presence means that this song, as powerful as it is on the record, is ten times better live. Just sayin’.

This one went through several stages as I caught more and more of the lyrics. Initially the thing that grabbed me was the way that at first it seems as though the speaker and the woman she’s talking about are unconnected except that they’re both concerned about keeping hold of the man they love. You know, like “hey, you’re afraid your husband doesn’t love you…well, I’m dealing with a married man, and you know things are never sure with them, so I kinda understand, just from the other side.” Then you find out that it’s the same man, and it’s like, whoa. Now, if I’d had the lyric booklet with the letter-esque salutation, I probably would’ve figured out that speaker/wife were connected sooner. In fact, it took hearing live for a second time for me to realize that the two women were friends and had known each other (perhaps having an intimate relationship) before the one married the man. Yeah, told you I don’t pay that much attention to lyrics.

I’m still not completely clear on two points. One: Did the speaker know that the married man writing to her and promising to move to California was her friend’s husband until her friend called her and told her about the overheard phone conversation? I’m sort of inclined to think she didn’t, though that does seem highly coincidental. I somehow have a lot of sympathy for the “homewrecker” – in a way, she’s as trapped and disappointed as the wife who married, initially at least, because her “time was running out.” I feel like her last statement that the husband won’t leave his wife is partly frustration at losing him, but partly resignation of her pursuit of him upon finding out who he is. But that’s a lot of reading in on my part. The other point that confuses me is this line: “You and I were almost dead. You’re better off for leaving.” Who’s leaving who? In what way? Thoughts?

As I mentioned in the last paragraph, I think the most amazing thing about this song is that it makes you feel for both the wife and the other woman. But that could be just because Jenny performs the other woman’s part so perfectly. In any case, I’m always emotionally drained by the end of the song.

A Better Son/Daughter

Rilo Kiley – A Better Son/Daughter

Sometimes in the morning I am petrified and can’t move
Awake but cannot open my eyes
And the weight is crushing down on my lungs
I know I can’t breathe and hope someone will save me this time
And your mother’s still calling you, insane and high
Swearing it’s different this time
And you tell her to give in to the demons that possess her
That God never blessed her insides
Then you hang up the phone and feel badly for upsetting things
Crawl back into bed to dream of a time
When your heart was open wide and you loved things just because
Like the sick and the dying

And sometimes when you’re on you’re really fucking on
And your friends they sing along and they love you
But the lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap
And it teases you for weeks in its absence
But you’ll fight and you’ll make it through you’ll fake it if you have to
And you’ll show up for work with a smile
You’ll be better and you’ll be smarter and more grown up and a better daughter or son
And a real good friend
You’ll be awake you’ll be alert you’ll be positive though it hurts
And you’ll laugh and embrace all your friends
You’ll be a real good listener you’ll be honest you’ll be brave
You’ll be handsome you’ll be beautiful
You’ll be happy

Your ship may be coming in
You’re weak but not giving in
To the cries and the wails of the valley below

Your ship may be coming in
You’re weak but not giving in
And you’ll fight it you’ll go out fighting all of them

“A Better Son/Daughter” is about depression. It starts off in first person but quickly moves to second, a move which seems to be the speaker trying to distance herself from the feelings she doesn’t want to have. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, as the speaker moves from thinking about an unsavory family life and difficulty maintaining emotional balance to dreaming about a potential future in which the highs would stay, even if it’s through sheer willpower. Even though this is one of RK’s most marching-beat songs (the preponderance of which on Under the Blacklight is one of the reasons I don’t like the album as much), which I tend to find boring, it carries a great deal of power. I don’t struggle with depression myself, but as corny as it sounds, I feel like this song helps me understand people who do. And on a weird note, I really like that the title is “A Better Son/Daughter,” but when the equivalent phrase occurs in the song it’s “a better daughter or son.” RK tends to do little unexpected things like that, where you think you know the word or the musical note that’s coming next, and they switch it up a little on you. I love that.


Rilo Kiley – Pictures of Success

This is more of an evocative one rather than a narrative one. It’s about a girl who’s in California, struggling to pay the bills and figure out, basically, if it’s all worth it. Sound familiar? Yeah, I gotta say the lines “I’m a modern girl, but I fold in half so easily when I put myself in the picture of success” speak to me pretty strongly. She’s a bit more fatalistic than I am (“they say California is a recipe for a black hole; I say I’ve got my best shoes on, I’m ready to go”), but Jenny’s definitely tapped into something about Generation Y here that I recognize. And that’s true about a lot of RK songs for me; just because I recognize and identify with a lot of their songs doesn’t mean I think they’re right. But they’re real, and while they may not be right in a cosmic sense, they’re often right in an experiential sense. Oh, and here’s a good place to reiterate the sense of place (um, yeah, just because they mention California in the song). Rilo Kiley are from right here in Los Angeles, and the more I get to know the area, the more things I recognize from their songs. It’s not like you have to live here to understand the songs or anything, but when they talk about Coldwater Canyon, or Laurel Canyon, or having to get up high enough to breathe, or Melrose, it grounds the song geographically and adds another layer of meaning.

Rilo Kiley – Paint’s Peeling

Okay, after listening to this one countless times the other day, I think it’s about murder. What do you think? Yeah, so I mostly put this one up as an example of how I thought it was just another oblique relationship song and then a whole other layer was opened up when I thought about the murder possibility and how that would affect the reading of the rest of the song. These songs invite litcrit, people, I’m telling you.

Rilo Kiley – Papillon

And yeah, no crit to speak about with this one. I have just developed an inordinate amount of love for it, and it’s from their 1999/2000 self-titled EP (sometimes known as The Initial Friend EP) which is now out of print, so it’s hard to get. Plus, it has Blake on it. Blake sings several of the songs on the first few albums, then Jenny gradually takes over more and more. His are good, too, just not always as good as hers. I always feel bad for him, though – he’s an outstanding guitarist and great songwriter, too, but Jenny just has such a powerful presence that she tends to overshadow him.

Rilo Kiley – Portions for Foxes

I knew this post was going to be a bad idea because I wouldn’t be able to stop. But seriously, last one. This is probably their best-known and most-loved song, and I realized I hadn’t posted it in ANY of my previous RK posts, and you can’t really be knowledgable about RK without having heard “Portions for Foxes.” So there you go.

Rilo Kiley - Take Offs and Landings Rilo Kiley - The Execution of All Things Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous
Take Offs and Landings
“Pictures of Success”
music/lyrics: Jenny/Blake
The Execution of All Things
“A Better Son/Daughter”
“Paint’s Peeling”
music/lyrics: Jenny/Blake
More Adventurous
“Does He Love You?”
“Portions for Foxes”
“A Man/Me/Then Jim”
music: Jenny/Blake
lyrics: Jenny

Click the album covers above to go to the Amazon album page; use the widget below to get DRM-free MP3s from Amazon. And hear 30-second previews. They don’t have Take-Offs and Landings in the MP3 store, though, so I substituted some of the tracks I actually like from Under the Blacklight.


Ebert on How to Read a Movie


It’s That Season Again…


  1. Holly

    This one of your obsessions is really growing on me. I didn't expect to like her as much as I do when I first started hearing her stuff, but she's got depth… which is ironically hard to find among artists.

  2. Yay! This is why I post about them so much. :) I need my obsession to spread. Jenny Lewis's solo album comes out tomorrow, and I'll probably be posting about it, too. (Jenny is Rilo Kiley's lead singer.) And yeah, it's their catchy tunes that got me in the beginning, but they rose to obsession-level because of the surprising amount of depth in the songs.

  3. Holly

    This one of your obsessions is really growing on me. I didn't expect to like her as much as I do when I first started hearing her stuff, but she's got depth… which is ironically hard to find among artists.

  4. Yay! This is why I post about them so much. :) I need my obsession to spread. Jenny Lewis's solo album comes out tomorrow, and I'll probably be posting about it, too. (Jenny is Rilo Kiley's lead singer.) And yeah, it's their catchy tunes that got me in the beginning, but they rose to obsession-level because of the surprising amount of depth in the songs.

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