Others Stray But I Won't
357 · 29 November 01
Jewel: This Way
When I said Jewel still had great records in her, not all of you believed me. I couldn't entirely blame you. Pieces of You was clearly the work of an immature and at times dangerously naive artist, and six years on my lonely prediction that it would come to seem as important as Joni Mitchell's Blue hasn't garnered appreciable extra support. In my defense I will point out that I gave it until 2018. In my offense I will note that even inside my own head, Patty Griffin's Living With Ghosts has already more or less eclipsed it. Spirit, Jewel's second album, was half decent and half dismal, and the more she promoted it the sadder it made me. But that was nothing compared to how depressing it was to watch her follow it up with an antiseptically inspiration-free Christmas album I'd happily buy the rights to and delete if I were rich, a record that I consider the musical (and moral) equivalent of those dorky photo-op stand-ups at low-rent amusement parks where you go around the back and stick your head through the hole and somebody takes a snapshot in which it looks ever so faintly like you are trapped in American Gothic.
But when we look back on these years, everything will telescope. The Christmas album will get asterisked, the promo nonsense pulped, and the bio-discography will begin like this: bracingly erratic and willful debut album half-written while living in a van and playing in coffeehouses for parking-meter money; overproduced and overreactive second album with a few songs worth rescuing on later concert records; brilliant, ecstatic, breathtakingly self-assured third album correcting everything misguided about the second one and resuming the patient journey towards immortality.
I shouldn't sound too smug about believing this record could be this good, though, because this isn't remotely how I thought it could be this good. After the glazed-over lifelessness of the last two I figured, simplistically, that the only likely route back would require Jewel repudiating pretty much everything musical that had happened to her since the van, and making a deliberately minimal folk record relying on nothing but her own guitar-playing and voice. I know, as you almost surely don't if you haven't seen her perform close up, what her voice can do. The guitar is just to keep the intensity from getting unbearable. This is even the right artwork for such an album, blurry black-and-white photographs of Jewel in normal clothes about which I don't think any stylists were consulted (or else the ones that were are very good), most perfectly the back-cover picture of her asleep on a couch with a guitar still in her lap, as if she's just made precisely the quiet record I wanted.
But that's not what This Way is. Or rather, it's one of the things this album is, but only one of many, and arguably the least essential. I want to say, in retrospect, that I knew this album was going to be great by halfway through "Standing Still", the opening track and first single, but of course that is exactly wrong: the problem with Spirit wasn't that it didn't have moments, it was that the moments were all the same. It's hardly a good sign, after all, according to the biases I arrived with, that for her lead single Jewel felt obliged to retain veteran co-writer Rick Nowels. The opening minute is shimmery and pretty, the lyrics falling back on fire, night and headlights, and the chorus starts out like it's going to try to survive on a languid "Do you want me / Like I want you?" draped over pattering beat-box loops. But then some real drums and guitars kick in, and things start moving. "Am I standing still / With the scenery flying by?", Jewel asks, and on paper it's not much less mundane a question than the first one, but she finally throws herself into the surge of the music, as she so rarely did on Spirit and never on Joy, and suddenly, like it was so simple all along, it's her in the song, frozen in place as worlds rush around her, wondering how she's supposed make contact with blurs. By the second verse all mechanisms are firing at her command, guitars stuttering, bass burbling, drums galloping, and I begin wondering whether she and Nowels haven't devised the long-sought synthesis of Sarah McLachlan and Faith Hill, an anthem we could be hearing for years.
And if that's too slick and overwrought for you, no matter. Nowels only has a hand in three of these, and the second one isn't for a while. Most of the rest are Jewel's alone. "Jesus Loves You", track two, starts off quiet and impish, and while I can think of some other singers who could pull off the plaintive "They say that Jesus loves you, / What about me?", I'm not sure who else could sing "Showing ta-tas on the TV is OK; / I wanna be OK, too" and "They say abortion will send you straight to a fiery hell, / That is if the fanatics don't beat Satan to the kill" with the proper mixture of childlike wink and grown-up indignation. This song, too, crescendoes, here into a wailing chorus that reminds me a little of Joan Osborne in her blues mode, but any chance of rawness becoming the song's dominant aesthetic disappears in a delicate twirl of vocoder-ish harmony right as Jewel sings "if the fanatics", and I think we're left rather closer to XTC's "Dear God" than to Sarah's cover of it or Joan's "One of Us".
The most surprising element of This Way, to me, and perhaps the most essential, the thing that holds this record up just where Spirit droops, is that there are four helplessly, cheerfully, upliftingly deadpan country songs. The record was recorded in Nashville, where I believe a civic ordinance mandates that a third of each album produced within city limits has to be country, as a kind of style tax, but Jewel's confidence makes me suspect the location was an effect, not a cause. The first of these, "Everybody Needs Someone Sometime", turns up as track three, introduced with a dry kick-snare thump that makes Mutt's ogre-march rhythms for Shania sound haplessly counterfeit and LA. If I were Shania and Mutt, I would be worried; in one song in what isn't supposed to be her native style, Jewel and producer/guitarist Dann Huff (who was Shania's lead guitarist, so the similarities aren't all my imagination) rip through (and up) more country tropes than Shania and Mutt managed to crack in the entire course of Come on Over. I loved the Brad Pitt line in "That Don't Impress Me Much" as much as anyone, but I'd trade it in a second for "Spivey Leeks was a drip of a man; / He looked like a potato shoved into jeans" or "Sister Mary used to be a nun; / She thought that she'd retire and have her some fun". Plus Jewel is a better singer, and she's eligible to run for Congress.
If you agree that overproduced ballads are what killed Spirit, you'll be relieved to hear that there's only one on This Way, the orchestra-buoyed "Break Me". Left with only one outlet for all the silky impulses of the last two albums, though, Jewel makes the most of it, breaking out a twenty-five-piece string ensemble and both ends of her vocal range (the fluttering, breathy, girlish soprano and the sinuous, resonant, Happy-Rhodes-esque alto). "I will meet you in some place / Where the light lends itself to soft repose", she begins, presumably reading out of her poetry notebook, before demurely promising "I will let you undress me", borrowing (with permission, the credits clarify) a great Rickie Lee Jones line, "You could hurt me with the sharp end of what you say", and then spinning off into a dreamily abstract chorus that firmly quells any illicit thrill the undressing might have engendered. But the serious counterweight to the country romps, this time, instead of hushed ballads, is a series of lithe, intermittently transformative rock songs, variations on the same general theme as "Standing Still". "Do You Want to Play?", with blazing lead- and backing-howls in the choruses, is mainly engaging for non-lyrical reasons (both howls are, in fact, wordless), but the lyrics are also an intriguing development for Jewel, a story-sketch whose ends she doesn't try to tie up, and in which she gives one of her characters the best line ("Are you only half alive, or have you always been this inarticulate?").
The second country song, co-written with rodeo-star boyfriend Ty Murray, is squarely in the melancholy road-ballad tradition, and although I'm disappointed to discover that that line early on isn't "Working in an office, building toast", I perk up again when I realize, I think, that the song is actually written from Ty's perspective, about traveling partner Cody Lambert. If rodeo riders had to use music, like figure skaters (and PBR, I want a cut of the incremental revenues from this idea), this song would be nearly ideal, the sole drawback being that it would only work right played over the slow-motion replay of the ride. There's not much chance to ponder this, though, as the record spins straight into the keening, heavily processed, pan-ethnic "Serve the Ego", sonically the most complicated of the album's songs, although for me, despite co-writers Itaal Shur and Cesar Lemos' efforts, compositionally and lyrically the least satisfying. I might not notice so much, though, if it didn't lead directly to the sparkling title track, another Nowels co-composition, and one of two songs here that forget about Shania for a few minutes and attempt to out-Corrs the Corrs. I'm not sure it doesn't succeed.
"Cleveland", in my taxonomy, is the third country song, and you'll have a hard time debating the point after hearing the twangy guitar hooks behind "I wanna make your toes curl", but the first and last verses have more than a little of Dar Williams' folk-storytelling restraint, there's a vividly Paula Cole-like moment in the middle ("I feel so plain", borrowed in both intonation and sentiment from Paula's "I Am So Ordinary"), the opening acoustic-guitar chimes invoke the Pretenders' similarly-minded separation lullaby "2000 Miles", and just when it seems like the song is going to be a static tableau, the final line, "It's just an inch from me to you, / Depending on what map you use", hints at a solution other than simply waiting for the reunion. "I Won't Walk Away" is the last Nowels collaboration, and the other one that sounds like the Corrs to me (as well as the other appearance of both the string section and the weird, weepy alto from "Break Me"). Structurally, it could probably pretty easily be rearranged to serve as Jewel's answer to Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" the next time she needs to entertain a battleship crew, but I don't inherently object to pomp, and Jewel makes "Harsh world be damned, / We'll make a stand" sound almost dramatic enough for non-metaphorical use, before wrenching the focus back to the personal with "Others stray but I won't", which if I were a soldier, I suspect I'd actually find more inspiring.
The final country song is the twangiest of the four, the roadhouse-leveling "Love Me, Just Leave Me Alone". For once the credits, which do not itemize Jewel's own roles in the songs, imply by omission that the dexterous acoustic-guitar part here is hers. Huff, Gordon Kennedy and Kenny Greenberg add several layers of probably-superfluous country-blues-squawk. Her lead vocals in the choruses are ferocious, and she tosses in a few more impressive backing yelps, mixed low to make them sound like expensive hired divas instead of just something she tossed off in a spare take before she worked out the lyrics. All the genre flair in Tennessee, though, can't keep Jewel from betraying her out-of-town origins in at least one verse ("Your mother was a wolf bite, / Your daddy was a cigarette, / Your brother was a rosebud / Crossbred with a car wreck, / Your sister was a stockbroker, / But you ain't nothing but a turtleneck"), even without the muttered Elvis impression and subsequent snort of self-amusement in the fade out. We're almost done with the album proper at this point, but Jewel has saved the most ambitious song for last, "The New Wild West". Deep in the thank-yous, Jewel reveals the fairly astonishing detail that she recorded a version of this song with Daniel Lanois, RHCP bassist Flea and Jane's Addiction/Porno for Pyros drummer Stephen Perkins, yet opted not to include it on the album. I haven't heard that version, so I am free to imagine what it sounded (sounds?!) like, and in my daydreamed version it was awe-inspiringly beautiful, but also the thing that jolted Jewel out of her sedated reverie. I imagine that Lanois, the master of atmosphere, produced it as the logical extrapolation of everything on Spirit and Joy, even subjugating Flea and Perkins to the quest for idealized serenity, and Jewel, listening to the perfect expression of what she thought she wanted to be, finally perceived the contours of death in it. How much courage does it take for a twenty-seven-year-old to throw away a Daniel Lanois recording, which is pretty much the fanciest gift your record-label can buy you? How astonishing does Jewel and Huff's version have to be, to be the version she threw away a Daniel Lanois recording for? Maybe more striking than this, but maybe not. There are harpsichord-like acoustic guitars, twitchily programmed drums, washes of keyboard and guitar texture, industrial synth pulses, airy organ, redemptive rhythm-guitar blasts, sinisterly Rasputina-ish cello sawing and another fury of vocal styles, and I'm not sure you could forge a better intersection of vocal technique, studio-gadget insularity and rock-concert expansiveness if you had Sarah Brightman, Glen Ballard and Crazy Horse to work with. There's still something missing, though. I suspect that whatever she decided was wrong with the Lanois version is also wrong with this version, just less so. The song is loud and the lyrics are barbed, but this kind of rock is bigger than the people who play it, and that's another way of phrasing the problem with Spirit. I wanted an intimate acoustic folk album because I know what Jewel sounds like cloaked by nothing.
And in the end, after I've become convinced I was wrong to want that, I get a sample of it anyway. The last two songs on the album are labeled as bonus tracks, and although commercially speaking it makes no sense to have "bonus" tracks on an album that has never existed in any form without them, in practice the logic is perfectly clear. After the dozen studio tracks, these are live solo-acoustic recordings, done recently, of much older songs. "Grey Matter" is the slower one, as spare as Alanis' "Uninvited" demo. "I am drifting", Jewel sighs unsteadily, "through your ambiguous region". I don't know what this means. It's the kind of phrase a young poet writes before they know better, but once I started feeling like I knew better, I stopped writing poetry, and how is that an improvement?
The effective finale, then, is the busy "Sometimes It Be That Way". A simple strummed accompaniment is basically a logistical necessity, given how many words have to be sung, but my favorite lines are the least clever: "I'm sorry if it was my swerve that tempted you to sway", "I'm sorry if my heart breaking ruined your day". Chinese butterflies and Caribbean hurricanes always sound more impressive, like nature's mysteries will be forever beyond us, but I don't much care about nature's mysteries, neither halfway around the globe nor in my rainy, neglected back yard, I care about how people affect each other. I care about how our decisions cascade. I care about how we demonstrate to each other what we are capable of. We take turns. We sit down at computers and microphones, in Cambridge and Nashville and a thousand other cities, and try to find the map on which they are all words for the same feeling. Do I still think Pieces of You will come to have been as important as Blue? You're asking the wrong person. My twenty-eight-year-old self still does, and it's his opinion on the subject that history will judge, not mine. My opinion is that as a performer Jewel has as much potential as anyone alive. I believed this when potential was almost all she had, and I believed it when she herself seemed to forget. Those were the hard parts. Believing in her potential now, when she's returned to her senses and proven that she has a much better idea of how she needs to grow than I do, is far easier. Maybe it's time for you to try. She will make better albums than this. That's all I'm going to predict this time. You don't have to believe me, of course, you can just wait. But if she's going to make better albums, why bother with This Way? For the same reason that you will get up, tomorrow morning, and try to make something of a magnificent day you hope will be neither your happiest nor your last.