The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard was inspired by a Los Angeles preacher-poet-musician named Lee Cantelon whose book The Words aims to yank the teachings of Jesus Christ out of the pews and into the clickity-clack crunch of contemporary urban living. Sounds like a plan, and also a challenge particularly well suited to a torch-song contemplative like Jones, whose recurring plot lines and city-street mythologizing often return to a yearning for redemption and escape. But Cantelon, who co-wrote a few of the tunes on Exposition Boulevard, and producer-instrumentalist Peter Atanasoff, either put too much distance between themselves and the artist in the making of this album, or encouraged her worst free-form instincts to create what would previously have been regarded as unthinkable: a nearly tuneless Rickie Lee Jones album.
Her deliberately eccentric delivery has alienated mass audiences for much of her three-decade career, but in songs like “Nobody Knows My Name,” “Where I Like It Best,” and “Road To Emmaus,” she’s jettisoned the pretense of singing and playing for a voice-cracking chant and the dreary chug-chug of basic rhythm work on guitar and piano. The single, “Falling Up,” lazily confuses a song title with a full chorus — a sure sign that the songwriter is treading water. “I Was There” is an eight-minute finale that aims for exotic sonic effects but instead sounds like it was recorded in a pet store. The vibrant sneer of “Tried To Be A Man” is the closest thing The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard has to a coherent, satisfying song, and it proves that finding religion and maintaining a sense of creative discipline are not mutually exclusive.