Rilo Kiley boldly brings empathetic light to the hopes of the mistress, with the song’s protagonist believing that once the divorce comes to be, they’d both be free in California. Not so much.
Being the other woman is rarely a sympathetic position to be in, so it’s a testament to Jenny Lewis’s outstanding songwriting ability that she comes across as somewhat vulnerable while doing so.
Self-deception is sad to watch, and regardless of her agency in this situation, it’s still the unnamed man balancing a mistress and a family that deserves the most scorn. Lewis isn’t morally pure, sure, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for her as she tells herself: “And when he leaves her, he’s coming out to California.”
He probably isn’t.
[A side note: Jenny Lewis had an incredible run in 2003/2004, providing vocals to Postal Service’s landmark ‘Give Up’ album; releasing ‘More Adventurous’, Rilo Kiley’s breakthrough record, which contains ‘Does He Love You?’ as well as ‘It’s A Hit’ and ‘Portions For Foxes’ (three of the finest songs of the last decade); and writing and recording the still-unreleased ‘Blood On The 4-Tracks’, with Conor Oberst. Impressive!]
California acts as the final frontier for this married man; the promise of something freer and closer to paradise. To quote Don Walker, who certainly wasn’t talking about California, it’s where “the grass is greener, the girls are sweeter.” The crux of this seems to hang on a line in the first verse: “All the immediate unknowns are better than knowing this tired and lonely fate.” Back in the real world, Lewis slowly realises that both women are being played against each other, and the husband is also being used: as comfort, as security, and as a life raft. Two late night phone calls towards the end of the song offer up interesting glimpses into this messy triangle: the wife calls the mistress to confess she only married him as she felt her time was running out, while in the next verse she overhears his pleas over the phone to another: “Baby I love you, and I’ll leave her, and I’m coming out to California.”
Again, he probably isn’t. Affairs feel romantic because of the inherent danger. Secrets can be fun. Opposing forces can galvanise a couple. The sneaking around and clandestine phone calls exist in a heightened reality, each stolen second seeming worlds’ away from joint accounts and toddlers and bills and all the day to day that becomes interlocked with serious relationships. Novelty is a powerful aphrodisiac. Ultimately, it’s usually just a fantasy, a symptom of something larger that is missing from life. ‘Does He Love You?’ ends with the same sad realisation so many ‘other women’ reach: “And your husband will never leave you. He will never leave you for me.”