Rock critics may not always share the tastes and sensibilities of the average citizen, but here’s one example where the twain did indeed meet. Like 95 percent of the population, I paid little mind to Jewel’s first album, Pieces of You, when it was released in February 1995. I have no qualms about singer-songwriters — plop me down with anything by Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, Sandy Denny, or the sadly missed Jeff Buckley, and I’m happy as a clam (albeit a depressed clam). But from its whiff of self-righteousness to its coffeehouse-waif ambiance, Pieces of You felt as precious as Jewel Kilcher’s own abbreviated stage name. After playing it twice, I dutifully filed it away. When a coworker attended a Jewel concert and reported that one highlight was her yodeling, I sensed I’d made the right decision.
Unless you stowed aboard the Pathfinder expedition to Mars, you surely know the Jewel story didn’t end there. A year and a half after the LP’s release, propelled by relentless touring and videos that highlighted Jewel’s grabbiest songs and her ingenue looks, the buzz began. Pieces of You has since become one of those talked-out, must-own albums, taking up residence in the Billboard top 10 and landing Jewel on the cover of Time. To cement the album’s status (and eke out a few more dollars), on July 29 Atlantic Records issued a limited-edition version of Pieces of You on two vinyl LPs, with five previously unreleased tracks as added enticement. Clearly a revisit was in order.
Jewel’s good fortune can be attributed to many things — timing, glamour, showmanship, and, above all, star power. Charisma isn’t a given for folkies, but Jewel has it. On stage, constantly pressing her blond hair behind her ears, she’s a strumming contradiction, confident yet ditsy. The one factor that shouldn’t have worked in her favor is her own album. Pieces of You remains a wimpily produced batch of songs — so ineffectual that both ”Who Will Save Your Soul?” and ”You Were Meant for Me” had to be rerecorded for release as singles. It’s best considered as a guided tour through three decades of female folk-pop styles. ”Near You Always” is Blue-era Joni Mitchell; ”Foolish Games,” pure Kate Bush; ”I’m Sensitive,” Vega with a lobotomy.
That wouldn’t be so bad if the women who populate her songs weren’t such simps. Men leave them, treat them indifferently, or, in ”Painters,” die on them — and the female narrators simply absorb the blows like the wounded birds they are. When Jewel ventures into social commentary, it’s embarrassing. ”Adrian” is a movie-of-the-week about a coma boy; ”Pieces of You,” her take on society’s superficial values, becomes unintentionally hilarious when she coos, ”Oh, Jew, oh, Jew.” (Let’s not mention the liner-note poems, which read like high school lit-magazine entries.)
Like many an introverted balladeer before her, Jewel gleams brightest when she chronicles unrequited love. ”Near You Always” finds her trying to keep her distance from the object of her affection so she won’t fall back in love, and anyone who’s been in such a situation can relate to that sort of pain. ”Everything Breaks,” the best of the five bonus tracks, continues the vibe, with a stronger delivery. And ”You Were Meant for Me” chronicles a suddenly single life (making breakfast for one, for instance) with deft strokes lacking in her other numbers.
Pieces of You, then, remains a very mixed bag — yet the factors that make much of it so cringe inducing also lie at the heart of Jewel’s popularity. The Time cover acknowledged not only Jewel’s success but the breakout success of the all-women Lilith Fair tour, on which she’s making periodic appearances. Jewel wasn’t at the Lilith show I caught, yet even without her presence, it was clear she’s among the most lightweight of the pack. She lacks the political passion of Tracy Chapman, the neurotic-prodigy angst of Fiona Apple, and the thirtysomething wariness of Sarah McLachlan (not to mention the hardened sass of Sheryl Crow).
Instead, Jewel revels in traits Lilith seems to downplay — girlishness, vulnerability, and sex. ”Rocker Girl” and ”Cold Song,” two other extra tracks on the Pieces of You LP, are toss-off novelties about cuddling with cute guys. Another new song, ”V-12 Cadillac” which will see its debut on the forthcoming MOM II: Music for Our Mother Ocean benefit album, is a throwaway white blues about flirting with surfer dudes. At a time when women pop stars are springing ahead into new turf both musically and lyrically, Jewel knows that every generation still needs its symbol of delicate flowerhood, wandering wide-eyed through life. Let’s just hope she’s growing wiser as well as older — and that she continues to leave yodeling off her records. Pieces of You expanded edition: C+