Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jewel Becomes Indistinct Before The Sellout: This Way Flatly Disappoints!

The Good: Moments of voice, Moments of musical experimentation
The Bad: Musically and lyrically boring
The Basics: Surprisingly bad, Jewel experiments with all sorts of musical sounds and genres, only to create an album that sounds indecisive and sloppy.

I tend to take umbrage with the idea that an artist who tries to jump out of the niche that they might have become popular in is selling out. The idea that an artist cannot evolve or grow or try something new is a fallacy that disappoints the conscientious reviewers who discover the true joy of an artist who might be talented in more than just one genre. Then again, when they construct an entire album based upon one of the few things that worked on their prior album, it can be classified as a sellout as they attempt to reap in for commercial gains in a new niche what they have lost in a previous niche.

With that in mind, This Way is Jewel's feeler album. As I come close to finishing my Jewel reviews, I offer the review everyone else seems to be avoiding. Shortly before she completely sold out to the dance-pop crowd with "0304," Jewel released This Way, where she attempts to experiment over several different genres. However, unlike Sophie B. Hawkins' Timbre (reviewed here!) or Heather Nova's South (reviewed here!), which both explored various musical genres and illustrated those artists' willingness to take on more unusual instruments, This Way sounds like it is desperately scrambling to find a new niche and the album fails to come together in the end. Instead, this is a sloppy collection of singles that fail to become a cohesive album and ultimately blur together as a strange variety of white noise.

With fourteen tracks, clocking in at 59:57, This Way is definitely the musical vision of Jewel (Jewel Kilcher). Jewel wrote (or co-wrote) all of the songs on the album and she provides the primary vocals on this album. As well, she picks up a co-producer credit on This Way, which illustrates her greater control in the overall sound of the album. Unfortunately, she also abandons any pretense of being instrumentally inclined and is only credited with singing on this album. This is a disappointing step back as she started out as a well-rounded singer-songwriter who actually played at least one instrument on her debut. Since then, though, it seems she has decided to focus more on other aspects. What aspects those might be (apparently production) it seems baffling that she would give up any portion of what she was talented at in favor of (it certainly wasn't voice because her vocals have been generally decent from song one!).

Musically, This Way is a jumble of various styles and forms. Evolving from a folk-rock/pop princess, Jewel takes the buckshot approach on this album. She still has pop-rock ("Standing Still," "Do You Want To Play?"), but she puts feelers out into dance-pop ("Serve The Ego"), Country ("Everybody Needs Someone Sometime"), Christian rock ("Jesus Loves You") and Gospel ("Break Me"). She still has the soft ballads ("Till We Run Out Of Road") but they have more of a country twang to them and her only real attempts to keep those who loved her folk-rock work are the final two tracks ("Grey Matter" and "Sometimes It Be That Way") which were recorded live and have the "lone chick at open mic night" feel to them.

Whereas many earlier albums by Jewel have the lyrics going for them, this album is much more neutral in the quality of the lines Jewel penned. Foreshadowing her descent into dance music of the most inane type ("0304" is so shockingly bad that hearing it twice before writing this review is tainting my ability to write this review, despite having listened to This Way nine times, the last four of which were in a row immediately before beginning this review!), Jewel sacrifices meaning for the easy rhymes. Take, for example, her mainstream single that performed the best from This Way, "Standing Still." With a fifth-grader's sense of diction and rhyme schemes she wrote, "Mothers on the stoop / Boys in souped-up coups / On this hot summer night / Between fight and flight / Is the blind man's sight / And a choice that's right / I roll the window down / Fell like I'm gonna drown in this strange town / Feel broken down / Feel broken down" ("Standing Still"). While some of her earliest songs had sophisticated rhyme schemes or didn't even bother trying to rhyme, Jewel now makes poetry that sounds like it came from a simpleton.

Nowhere is this worse on This Way than the hit that convinced her to sell out to the Dance music crowd. On "Serve The Ego," she seems to have become completely intellectually lazy with lines like ". . . Do you like what you see? / I'll dance for you / And you'll dance for me / . . . Who says it is not my destiny / To let you control me / Underneath the disco light / Everybody's feeling alright (sic) / Get on your hands and knees / and praise the new deity / Serve the ego . . ." repeated over and over again. It is perhaps the definition of insipid pop-dance song.

Indeed, the only hint of the Jewel who broke out with songs like "You Were Meant For Me" and "Foolish Games" is the title track This Way. On that song, she reminds listeners what a pop-princess she could be with yet another anthem that speaks powerfully to her 12 - 18 female demographic. She croons "Say that you'll stay / Forever this way / Forever and forever / That we'll never have to change / Don't move / Don't breathe / Don't change / Don't leave / And promise me / Say you'll stay / We'll stay / This way" (This Way) and hearing it, I have to ask myself, "Who were teen girls idolizing at the turn of the millennium if not Jewel?! Indeed, such emotional simplicity seems like it could only appeal to that starry eyed youth who has a fresh love that lives in denial of how life is constant change. Don't get me wrong, the song This Way is good in exactly the way many of Jewel's other pop ballads are, but it never had the success of her other songs.

And frankly, knowing what comes next, This Way (both the single and the buckshot album) are preferable.

Vocally, Jewel does not stretch at all on This Way, but at least she does not produce over her innate talent . . . much. Instead, she tends to trend toward the lower ends of her vocal range on songs like "Cleveland," avoiding the sopranic ranges she can kill with. As a result of hampering her own range, many of the songs blend together, despite the instrumental and tempo diversity she presents on the various tracks.

And musically, she might not be playing her own instruments on This Way, but she has opened up to a richer sound. "I Won't Walk Away" has a very full string section sound to it and it almost sounds like a mid-80's love song from a big movie soundtrack. This is a distinct difference from her twangy sound on "The New Wild West."

But in the end, Jewel's musical experimentation does not pay off. This Way is boring at best, an auditory mess at worst. While any three songs on the album might be fine put back to back, the net result of the musical experimentation and diversity on this album is not to evoke the impression that Jewel is experimenting and growing, but rather that she has no idea what it is she wants out of her musical career.

And if her subsequent album is any indication, it appears all she wants is success: at least This Way has some sense of artistry, even if the album itself is a mess. What comes next . . . oh, it doesn't even have that!

For other Jewel albums, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Pieces Of You
Joy: A Holiday Celebration


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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