Listen to this track by Los Angeles-based indie rock auteurs Rilo Kiley. It’s “Does He Love You?”, a cut as taken from their 2004 breakthrough album More Adventurous, their third. The record’s title reflected their approach, which was one that certainly paid off in terms of critical dividends and by the presence of many of its songs on soundtracks at the time.
The band featured singer and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Lewis and guitarist and singer Blake Sennett, who also served as a writing duo from their formation of the group by the end of the 1990s. Both musicians came from acting backgrounds, with credits in film and television. Maybe that’s why they were able to craft such a sense of character and cinematic spirit into their songs. This one is surely one of their best on that front, and on many other fronts to boot.
This is a tale that starts off as a simple conversation between two friends who live long-distance, both ruminating on the state of their love lives. That is, until a shocking revelation is dropped into their laps, and into those of us who are the listeners, too.
As the story unfolds, one friend is married with a baby soon on the way, having married initially only to settle herself into a secure routine, yet coming to realize that she does in fact love her husband and her life. The other friend, the narrator, is having a long-distance relationship with a married man who, when he leaves his wife, is “coming out to California” to be with her. It’s only at the end of the song do we realize that the man in both of their lives is in fact the same man, embroiling everyone concerned in a hurtful love triangle. This is one of those songs that contains hints of a whole movie within it, full of pathos and provoking as much anger as it does sadness and a sense of tragedy.
Even before the shocking revelation in this song is made known, each woman is conflicted around the idea of settling into a routine for fear of losing herself. One friend has done it against her initial instincts but has come to love her life and the idea of attaching her identity to a role that she would have rejected as a younger person. The other has never taken the risk of settling down, as a result finding that “all the immediate unknowns are better than knowing this tired and lonely fate”. Her affair with a married man is an expression of her own desperation. All the while, she’s subtly envious of the image of her friend’s husband holding her “tiny face in his hands”, that envy being a foreshadow to a conclusion neither woman expects.
What remains after the terrible truth is made clear is the raw cruelty and humiliation that each woman has to work through in order to discover who they are in the light of it. They both must decide what it all means to them as individuals but also as friends. The only possible ray of light here is that once the narrator finds out that she is seeing her friend’s husband, she’s quick to console her friend, or is that admit to herself, that she doesn’t believe he will come to California anyway. Yet even that concession is pretty murky and empty in the end. Despite the differences in their choices around settling down with into a life with a safe routine, each one finds the joke’s on them anyway.
Loose ends and moral grey areas that cause lives to slip into chaos are important aspects of the human experience. And “Does He Love You?” is certainly a song that can be included the “life is messy” file. This song reminds us that our lives are not bound by easy resolutions and clear paths. They can in fact be fraught with cruel twists of fate. It reminds us that even when we think we’re getting what we want, we often find ourselves in a blind alley with nowhere to turn, uncertain as to how we even got there. It reminds us that sometimes people can take different roads and still end up at the same destination, not always happily.
Rilo Kiley produced one more album together in 2007, Under The Black Light, before going on hiatus. At that point, Lewis and Sennett to pursued other separate projects, including work with other bands and in solo careers. The band finally split officially in 2011.
To learn more about Rilo Kiley around the time of their final album, take a look at this video that reveals (among other things) something of their subtly conflicting and wavering commitments to the band and to each other even then.
Otherwise, you can visit Jenny Lewis’ site right here.