By Catie Kline
On Friday night, almost exactly 16 years after he first performed in Tappan Square in 2006, antifolk singer-songwriter/comic book artist Jeffrey Lewis returned to Oberlin. With an electric-acoustic guitar, a small array of pedals, and a sketchpad, Lewis speak-sang contemplative, folk-punk tunes to a captive audience. In his trademark deadpan voice, the artist explored loneliness, world history, record stores, depression, singing trees, crazy old men, and tylenol PM (among other things). He surprised the crowd with several “low-budget films,” slideshows of colorful, original drawings that accompanied his narrative songs.
Before the show began, the ‘Sco was bustling with a concentrated energy unique to cult music shows–dedicated fans bonded over their shared love of strange, intensely vulnerable art. Attendees bought records, t-shirts and comic books from Lewis himself at the merch table, excitedly conversing with the reserved and polite artist. Finally, Lewis approached the stage, drawing the audience in with disarming, plaintive songs that bleed with that particularly 2000s DIY authenticity. When Lewis played the ending of “Back When I Was Four” from his 2003 album It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through, which charters his life from the past to the future, he allowed the captive audience to hang in the slow, funny yet depressing verses detailing a 106-year-old Lewis, alone with only a dead goldfish. After a silence that suggests this is the conclusion of the song and life itself, Lewis comes back in full force, and the audience sings along to a verse about 128-year-old Jeffrey’s whimsical neighbors’ decorations, joyously repeating the final line “every Halloween they hung a million rubber skeletons.” Like a magic trick, these songs dive into the nitty-gritty, gross, depressing details of life, and just when you think it’s over, Lewis pulls the rug out from under you. With one final verse, he impossibly ends on a note of genuine hope.
Lewis’ four illustrated songs stood out deeply: one about the history of revolutionaries in Chile, one about the life and death of Keith Haring, one about a “creeping brain” who takes over the world with its wisdom, and one final ditty about the plot of Star Wars. Reminiscent of a strange folk punk kindergarten lesson, with each new whimsical, informative line, he skipped to a new slide of hand-drawn colorful illustration.
Lewis’ art beckons us to be brave enough to see the beauty within our simple hearts. He explores not just joy itself, but the pursuit of joy and the windy, difficult, disgusting, complicated, never-ending journey to get there. And then he began to sing his 2019 track “My Girlfriend Doesn’t Worry,” and I was yanked out of the haze of Lewis’ psychedelic projected backdrop and plopped back into reality — it’s so 2000s, but it’s also so…2000s. In the song, Lewis complains that his nondescript girlfriend never seems to think like he does. Lewis discusses girlfriends in other songs too, these women always vague and featureless.
Lewis’ DIY attitude is inspiring, and he has an impressive body of work, but it wasn’t just the antifolk style that made me feel like I’d traveled back in time at his concert. I’m grateful for the late nights I had in high school attempting to learn “Life” and “Seattle” on guitar, and I’m grateful the show happened. But I prefer the nights at the ‘Sco I’ve attended where the post-show conversations aren’t appended with asides like “well, yeah, a few lines were pretty outdated. It was a bummer. But the rest of it was good.”