Saturday, July 21, 2012

Jewel May Have Spirit And We Can (Mostly) Hear It.

The Good: Decent lyrics, Good voice, Good musical diversity
The Bad: Middle of the album is mush
The Basics: Only very barely above average, Spirit has some truly inspired songs, balanced by a lot of unmemorable ones.

As I continue to burn through the albums of Jewel, I find myself considering what makes an album average versus above average. In the case of Jewel's album Spirit, I found myself rather instantly at a loss for "cons." My initial plan was to rate Spirit at about average, which is where I put her debut Pieces Of You (reviewed here!) and not recommend because the best songs had all been singles. But with about two seconds of research, I discovered that "Deep Water" and "Absence Of Fear,"- which I had noted from the very first time I heard it at the end of the pilot to Once And Again (reviewed here!) - had never been released as singles. Thus, when Jewel comes out with her inevitable "Best Of" album, there is a probability that it will not include all the best Spirit has to offer.

But then, I thought of that big, gray section between "Down So Long" and "Absence Of Fear." This section of the album is about as memorable as Jewel's album Joy: A Holiday Celebration (reviewed here!) was to me now. As a footnote to that old review, I swear I don't remember a thing about the album, save the melody to the refrain of the title song. Everything else from that album . . . whoosh, it's gone from my mind. The disturbing thing is that after several listens to Spirit, I am already finding that I am struggling to write about the bulk of this album.

With fourteen tracks (there is an additional song attached to the final song) clocking in at 55:32, Spirit reminds the listener that Jewel is a genuine artist who is bursting with talent. She wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, save the bonus track. Said bonus track, 'This Little Bird" is also the only song she does not provide primary vocals on. And hey, she gives the 2:43 to her mother, who is also her manager, so it's pretty hard to argue with that. Otherwise, it is Jewel writing and Jewel singing. What seems baffling about Spirit is that it is less Jewel playing than on her debut! Credited with guitars on "Pieces Of You," Jewel only plays acoustic guitar on "Fat Boy" on Spirit and she doesn't nab any credit in the production-end of the album this time out. So, strangely, Jewel does less on Spirit and the result is less extremes in the songs, but also less that is distinguished in any way.

Spirit seems to burn itself out quickly on the lyrical front, starting with some of its best and most insightful songs before degenerating into the more predictable rhyme schemes and blase lines. To be fair, Jewel recovers well at the very end with "Absence Of Fear," but in between, there are sadly far too many songs that are indistinct or obvious for my tastes. But, because it was not a hit or a single, it is worth noting that "Absence Of Fear" is a well-written track that is surprising it was not released to try to bolster the album. Jewel accurately and powerfully captures the sensation of emerging into the world again when she writes "This vessel is haunted / It creaks and moans / My bones call to you / In their separate skin / I make myself translucent / To let you in, for / I am wanting / And I am needing you here / Inside the absence of fear" ("Absence Of Fear"). Jewel does seem quite able to articulate complex emotions with decent imagery and a sense of poetics that most pop-rock artists lack in today's overproduced, hit-driven market.

This is not to say that Spirit is without commercial appeal; far from it. "Down So Long" is a bluesy anthem for all those who have felt kicked around and it starts with the universal lines. And for as little as I like "Hands," the lyrics manage to say something that virtually everyone can relate to (even if one of her lines is performed in a way that still sounds like she's singing "A rabbit's a man who has no voice"). And Jewel does seem to specialize in a pretty high caliber of love song, like with "Jupiter" with its references like "Venus de Milo in her half-baked shell / Understood the nature of love very well . . . Oh, oh Jupiter / Oh, oh be still my little heart / Oh, oh love is a flame neither timid nor tame / Take these stars from my crown / Let the years fall down / Lay me out in firelight / Let my skin feel the night." It becomes fairly easy to see why so many young women flocked to her; she taps into something both simple and universal.

But it's not all high-minded and it is certainly not all great poetics. "What's Simple Is True" is simple in the most boring of ways with its plaintive "I love you's" and after "Jupiter," the only song that stood out to my ear was "Barcelona." Sadly, it stands out because the lyrics use some of the most predictable rhymes and senses of rhythm I've heard in a long time. So, for example, Jewel writes and sings ". . . don't worry mother / It's no longer gravity / Hold me, release me / Show me the meaning of mercy" ("Barcelona") before degenerating into a number of "Let me fly's." On its own, this might not seem terrible, but on the heels of rhymes like "blew/do," the song does not measure up to the standards of the rest of the album.

That said, Spirit definitely improves on the debut in terms of vocal presentations. On "Pieces Of You," Jewel projected an air of forced gravitas and melodrama; on Spirit, she sings and she sings simply and directly. She is singing her poetry and she lets the words emote for themselves and this works quite well to her advantage. Instead of seeming to desperately beat the listener over the head (or about the ears) with the meaning of the lines, Jewel seems more laid back and truly soulful. In other words, the pop-folk singer uses her comfortable range and relaxes in it, not seeming to put up as much of an affect as her debut did.

And there is a little bit of vocal diversity over the course of the album; "Kiss The Flame" is soft and soprano, while she ventures a little lower in moments of "Down So Long." She is able to mix it up on tempo more on Spirit as well. Unfortunately, she seems to take the most risks near the beginning of the album, playing with fast and slow, low and high, before settling into slow, high songs with minimal instrumentation or production to plunge the latter half of the album into a musical quagmire of boredom that leaves the listener more tired than inspired.

Similarly, the keyboards and guitars, while not as boring as on her debut, quickly become more sublime and predictable than expressive. Jewel's poetry might be noteworthy, but much of the music on Spirit is often unmemorable. There are no hooks and as a result, the bulk of Spirit is more or less forgettable.

That said, my initial reaction to Spirit was a more firm sense of enjoyment than when I first put "Pieces Of You" in. Ironically, while her debut grew on me, in analyzing Spirit, I find myself liking it less; like it has a few superlative tracks, but as an album it seems like somehow less than the sum of its parts.

The best track is "Absence Of Fear," the low point is the utterly unmemorable "Enter From The East."

For other works by former Artist of the Month artists, check out my takes on:
Joan Baez - Any Day Now
Britney Spears - Femme Fatale (Deluxe Edition)
Tori Amos – “Jackie’s Strength” (single)


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page!

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