Hearts Larger Than Our Heads
201 · 3 December 98
Perhaps this is mostly a sign that there isn't enough productive irresolution in my personal life, but easily the two most harrowing apprehensions I've been living under, for the last few months, have revolved around the impatient wait for the new albums by Alanis Morissette and Jewel. The sources of my avuncular protectiveness aren't difficult to determine: they were my joint nominees for 1995's best new artists, they benefited and suffered from opposite extremes of commercial success and critical scorn, and they seem to be intense and thoughtful women who were, at least at the time, too young for me to feel that it was appropriate to be attracted to them. They arrived at notoriety, however, in very different stages of preparedness. Alanis had a television childhood and two frizzy teenage dance-pop albums behind her, albeit under the somewhat less-withering Canadian spotlights, before her breakthrough, and had veteran producer Glen Ballard to assist with the transition. Jewel, on the other hand, had a comfortably anonymous upbringing in Alaska, was living in her van and recording demos in a San Diego coffee shop, and made an awkward, erratic first album whose delayed success still seems patently implausible to me. They shared an approach to lyric-writing, I think, that tended to mix startling wisdom and breathtaking naïveté with a blithe and hazard-fraught unselfconsciousness, and Jagged Little Pill and Pieces of You fit into the same basic genre, as a marketing department would look at the world, but their fundamental characters were, it seems to me, quite different. Jagged Little Pill traded on Alanis' intensity, confidence and focus; it seemed very obvious, listening to it, that this wasn't her first experience performing. Jewel could show the same assurance, some moments, but then in other moments seem frighteningly unguarded, like she'd completely forgotten anybody was listening. Shortly after Pieces of You came out, and long before sales took off, I saw her play a short in-store show, just her and her guitar, to an audience of no more than ten people, clustered around her microphone so tightly that she could have left it unplugged. She was astonishing. Two overpowering feelings battled for my emotional attention as I watched her. The first was the sudden surety that as a singer, she could do anything. Her delivery swooped from elfin whispers to wall-straining howls without hesitation or warning, blazing through enough alternatives in between that I was inclined to believe that the styles she was leaving out had only been omitted for reasons of time. Her album had examples of frailty, expansiveness, reserve, twang, and a dozen other things, but only in person was it clear how thoroughly she could embody all of these modes, in addition to simply producing them. The second knee-weakening wave came with the realization (which would probably have been paralyzing fear, if I had known she wouldn't have the safety of obscurity for long) that she had no idea what she was getting into. Newbury Comics, where she was playing, has been the site of two of the most memorably surreal performances I've seen. One was Scott Miller, of the Loud Family, rocking back and forth with his eyes closed, singing a song based too heavily on self-doubt to deliver any other way, oblivious to the two small boys attempting to examine superhero comic books on the shelves just behind him, timing their lunges to his forward oscillations the way you try to hit your miniature-golf shot past Godzilla's sweeping tail. The other was Jewel, standing in front of a rack of Bush and Nine Inch Nails CDs, wearing clothes with the approximate fashion aplomb of clumsily-mended Toughskins, yodeling. I am pretty sure that the walls of Newbury Comics had not heard yodeling before that, and have not since; I would be only slightly more surprised to wander in one day and find Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute, arguing his qualifications over in the corner with the supply of ironic lava lamps.
And so I watched the last three-plus years unfold, for both of them, with an uneasy truce of triumph and dread. Alanis, as far as I can tell, has yet to even flinch. In the videotapes of her big arena concerts, she appears to be precisely as self-contained and unfazed as she was when I saw her do a club show, that first summer, with only one single to lean on and a total repertoire that didn't fill an hour. I saw Jewel do a real concert, at the same club the same summer, and she was almost speechless, scanning the crowd as if she believed, with only a vague grasp of music-business economics, that it was these few hundred people who had personally made it possible for her to play music in order to eat. Later, though, things started getting weird. Atlantic must have assigned her a stylist, as her image jerked from cheerfully unpolished and vaguely Eskimo-ish good health to soft-focus, semi-pornographic sensuality. She was featured on glitz-laden awards shows, linked to Sean Penn, rumored to have recorded an album of grungy rock songs and then discarded it, and at one point she complained, on a late-night talk show, that playing music had gotten boring, and she was going to try acting for a while. (This second career got off to a promising start, until people realized that that wasn't actually her in Jerry Maguire.) I was forced to set up a schedule for rotating the fear that she'd make another record and it would be somehow mortally misguided, and the fear that she'd never release another record at all.
For about half of the running time of Spirit, a second album after all, I can forget my fears, and remember, vividly, why I thought Pieces of You was a folk milestone on the order of Joni Mitchell's Blue. The vibrato at the ends of lines in "Deep Water" defies gravity. The bass shudders and languid vocal tendrils of "What's Simple Is True" entwine as elegantly as Sarah McLachlan's most ethereal raptures. The fluttering chorus melismas of "Hands" locate the tesseract that can take you from Richard Buckner to Tracy Chapman in a blink. "Innocence Maintained" combines a melody ready for Dolly Parton to cover it with helplessly and artlessly earnest lyrics ("We've made houses for hatred, / It's time we made a place / Where people's souls may be seen and made safe") that I doubt anybody but Jewel could sing with a straight face. "Jupiter" finds a mid-point between smoky Patsy Cline-esque swirls and pious Amy Grant bounce. The quiet guitar-and-voice solo "Fat Boy" carries on the empathic legacy of Jewel's "Pieces of You", Patty Griffin's "Tony" and Tori Amos' "Pretty Good Year". "Barcelona" is a soaring ballad, and I suspect the majestic folk-anthem "Life Uncommon" could be sent back in time to serve as a rallying cry for justice direct and powerful enough to preempt a generation of smug professions of community from the gestalt-coopting "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" to the conscience-defiling "We Are the World". "Do You" is a credible Dylan pastiche, and the swelling "Absence of Fear" might well be an epic setting of an originally smaller Beth Nielsen Chapman song. And the haunting concluding duet on John Loudermilk's "This Little Bird", Jewel adding some tentative harmonies to a lead sung, almost under her breath, by her mother, is less a performance than a private moment of shared joy to which we are inexplicably fortunate witnesses.
That half of the album, however, represents about half of Jewel's stylistic spectrum, the pretty and poised half, the half that aspires to some synthesis of Sarah McLachlan, Emmylou Harris, Patty Larkin and Shawn Colvin. The other half, the playful and unruly half, the one that has more in common with Juliana Hatfield, Ani DiFranco and Sara Hickman, this time somehow never materializes. Where there should have been contrast, goofy songs you wonder if she wrote when she was eight, perhaps a mock-punk song or Jewel's answer to "(Life Is a Rock) But the Radio Rolled Me", there's just this listless, dispiriting hum. There is no other side to Spirit, it's pretty and poised all the way through. And this, I'm crushed to discover, mostly ruins the album for me. Part of the reason I loved all of the moods on Pieces of You is that every song reminded me of how else the songs before and after it might have been. Without the friction those possibilities produce, I can't get enough of a grip on Spirit to love it. If this had been Jewel's sixth album, instead of her second, I would have thought of it as a digression, but when you only have two points for your line, there's nothing to digress from. And so, in the moments I spend wishing I felt off-balance, I'm left to concentrate on details that aren't flattered by the scrutiny. Patrick Leonard's relentlessly glossy production could have been inspired, in moderation, but slathered over the whole album it strikes me as treacly and insensitive. I'm happy to see ex-School of Fish singer Josh Clayton getting some session work as a guitarist, but why does Jewel herself, who plays quite nicely, handle her own guitar parts on only two of these thirteen songs? She comes up with some striking phrases when she's struggling to exorcise a nagging spiritual ache, but when she sets out to compose Serious Poetry her age and inexperience lose, for me, most of their redeeming charm. I wrote a lot of awful poetry when I was younger, and maybe most of us did, but most of us didn't publish books of it. Pieces of You sounded so unworldly that I could readily believe it sometimes careened into cliché out of genuine ignorance, but by now Jewel should know better than to try to hang the drippy chorus of "What's Simple Is True" on merely "I love you", should be able to think of some less-generic relationship exhortation than "Kiss the flame, / Let's run with the hunted, the untamed", should be able to get through a whole album without using flames (six songs), darkness and moonlight (four) and gravity and flight (three) more than once apiece. You can see the difference in anima in the booklet art, even: for Pieces of You it looks, whether this is a fabrication or not, like Jewel and some camera-owning friend went out and took some pictures of her jumping around in a field, wearing whatever she happened to have on; Spirit, on the other hand, is lined with somber, seductive, black and white photographs of her eyes drooping, of her shirt slipping off one shoulder, fetishistic close-ups of her bare feet (oiled?) and hands, and a glamour shot of her bending over into a wind-machine. Obviously somebody thought this was what people bought her first album for, some sort of fantasy amalgam of a neurosis-less Tori Amos and a virginal Mariah Carey. They may, I suppose, be right, but it isn't why I bought it, why I loved it, or why I thought Jewel had such a luminous future stretching out in front of her. I haven't changed my mind about the future, but this doesn't feel like the beginning of it yet.
Susan Court: High Relief
The question I can never answer to my own satisfaction, however, about any album around which I've built up my own labyrinthine scaffolding of prejudices and demands, is whether I would been more tolerant of it if I had come upon it completely in isolation. When a record plays into my intricately fabricated contexts, in exactly the way I intended it to, the joy is profound, and enough so to justify the practice, but it has victims, too, and necessary casualties are still regrettable. Spirit is a beautiful and intelligent record, and should have made me very happy, but I can't bring myself to disregard my wishes for what it could have been. My contrast study for it, this week, is High Relief, the self-released debut by Seattle singer, keyboardist and songwriter Susan Court. The two albums are comparably graceful, and High Relief is, if anything, even more diligently restrained and meticulously produced than Spirit. But I know nothing about Susan Court, and so expect nothing (or, put more accurately, don't expect), and so instead of dwelling, morbidly, on all the thorns High Relief doesn't bristle with, I recalibrate my scale to suit the material, and thus am able to detect and revel in its own eccentricities.
The most obvious referent for High Relief, both musically and vocally, is Kate Bush, but Susan Court's particular mixture of Kate-like traits combines elements that for Kate belonged to separate periods, the structural simplicity of The Kick Inside and Lionheart, the transitional arrangement complexity of Never for Ever, the production detail of The Dreaming, the textural richness and humanized technology of Hounds of Love, and the melodic discipline of The Sensual World. I can match several of Susan's vocal quirks to moments of Kate's: the winding, baroque backing-vocal harmonies of "Blight & Bonny" to Kate's brittle "Army Dreamers", perhaps; the falsetto curtseys of "Senses Out" to "The Man With the Child in His Eyes"; the minstrel chirp of "Sir Galahad" to "Them Heavy People"; the eerie warbles of "Fundevogel (Do Not Forsake Me)" to the Bulgarian choir on "Deeper Understanding" and "Rocket's Tail"; the gruff duet on "Floodletting" to the chants from "Under Ice"; the runs and pirouettes of "Between the Quiet" to "Wuthering Heights". By now, though, surely these singing styles have passed into the public domain, at least when used as components of a style with characteristics of its own. In Susan's case, her overall vocal presentation is less theatrical than Kate's, tempering Kate's early shrillness with some of Jane Siberry's angelic calm and traces of Dalbello's lower-register menace. I can imagine unraveling Kate's early sound like a three-strand braid, separating it into Susan, Tori Amos and Emily Bezar, Emily's strand the operatic one, Tori's the emotional candor, and Susan's the rational grounding for the other two.
Musically, High Relief shares its most prominent elements, for me, with such arguably Kate-derived works as Emily Bezar's Moon in Grenadine, Milla's The Divine Comedy and Loreena McKennitt's The Mask and Mirror. The shifting, sumptuous, Pete and Maura Kennedy-like "Blight & Bonny" glides on ticking percussion, glittering acoustic guitar, airy cello and twinkling, mallet-ish keyboards. The verses of "Senses Out" rattle like an enormous clock mechanism made of xylophones, but expand into choruses of sighing cello and wisps of Mark Knopfler-ish guitar. "Chameleon" buzzes on guitar flares and a synthesizer line that sounds like a marimba somehow constructed out of flutes, the composite effect not entirely unlike Script for a Jester's Tear-era Marillion, if Dalbello had stood in for Fish. The reverent museum ode "Parrish Blue" is pulsing and jazzy, lithe fretless bass and evasive drums deliberately failing to resolve into the expected martial stomp. Parts of the atmospheric "Thread" dance around circumscribed rhythms like Jane Siberry might, but the chorus sounds to me like Clannad, circa Macalla, essaying an amiably-unconvincing torch-song imitation. The most Hounds of Love-like of these songs is probably the Grimm-worthy fairy tale "Fundevogel" (quicker and edgier than Loreena McKennitt would have recounted it), with its roto-tom-ish hand drums, concussive synth-kick-drum tattoos, mutedly anthemic guitar surges and layers of synth-chime lattice. "Floodletting", an arresting confession that seems to anthropomorphize consuming compulsion, instead of idealizing its cause, crawls along, haltingly, on ringing, angular piano and whirring cello. The quiet piano-and-cello finale, "Between the Quiet", is, if I'm interpreting it anything like correctly, an intriguing tribute to the narrator's sister, but I can't figure out whether the narrator's determination to internalize the sister's memory means that the sister is dead, or if the narrator is simply mining their shared childhood for the enthusiasms time has otherwise dimmed. The only song that feels incongruous, to me, is the recorder/lute/bongo air "Sir Galahad", which I can't listen to without thinking of Monty Python. My favorite, and this is another demonstration of what you can accomplish with a little juxtaposition, is the charging title track, an electric resignation to the limits of analysis (maybe; but if it's late enough, that's what I tend to think all songs are about). On an objective scale, "High Relief" has about the same pace, and some of the same dynamics, as Sinéad Lohan's "No Mermaid", but surrounded by Susan's other crystalline compositions, its subdued guitar churn is a comparative roar, and the redemptive choruses, rare concessions to galloping drum groove, evoke the quietly overflowing passion of Marillion's "White Feather", Kate's "Love and Anger", Mike Scott's "Sunrising", and whatever other moments lurk, tonight, around the verges of my stubborn belief that if the resonances bubble up from deep enough in your heart, the tiniest surface ripples can actually mark the grandest catharses. Of course, you have to stop splashing to see them.