November 26, 2008
It seemed to be a suave career move. An Alaskan-born woman of the wilderness, wedded to a rodeo cowboy, embraces her down-home roots and heads for Nashville to join the ranks of modern country singers. Jewel fled pop music for the confines of Music Row with nary a whisper from critics. Her shift felt natural, instinctive, organic.
Though Jewel’s loyal sentiments towards country music have been admirable, they yield little creative inspiration on Perfectly Clear. During her lengthy pop career, Jewel built up a reservoir of melodic tricks, but too few of them are on display. Perfectly Clear is a mishmash of traditional rhythms that’s easy on the ears, but it’s an erratic and, at times, bland demonstration of her talent. The wide-open expanses presented by producer John Rich are a fitting stage for Jewel’s intricately-woven wordplay, but her gritty storytelling is seen only in flashes.
As a whole, the album is a highly refined effort, and even the gooey love ballads are oddly lacking the passion that’s suggested beneath the surface. And at its heart, Perfectly Clear is truly ripe with maudlin romance. On “Two Become One,” Jewel sounds apprehensive even as she commits to her faithful man with a series of sweet nothings. The gentle “Love is a Garden” is indulgent, as she softly coos that both “need help to grow.” And during the schmaltzy number, “Thump, Thump,” her voice crumbles under the weight of its own emotion.
But the album is charged by a set of strong-willed tunes that soothe these shortcomings. “Anyone But You”, easily the most traditional-sounding song in the bunch, is a Wynn Varble co-write that rights the ship momentarily as a warm fiddle wraps itself around a tale of desperation and longing. The bluesy “‘Til It Feels Like Cheating” finds Jewel describing married life as a turn-off. Her alluring vocal serves as enticement for her husband as they embark on a sweet-as-sinning tryst at the local motel. And “Stronger Woman” is the empowering story of what happens when the flame can’t be rekindled. No emotional turmoil involved, just clear-eyed optimism for a brighter future, and Jewel plays the role with steely resolve.
But those expecting her to come forward fearlessly on her debut country disc find a series of nondescript songs that play out as Jewel’s exhaustive search for identity. Perfectly Clear is a mild-mannered effort that buckles under its own weight; though its lyrical complexity and traditional flourishes should be lauded, the songs often lack real clarity.
This awkward transition to country music calls to mind Jewel’s previous musical shift, a detour into dance-pop that culminated in her polarizing 2003 single “Intuition.” In its catchy chorus, she implores a potential love interest to follow his own instincts. As she notes, “They will lead you in the right direction.” She’d do well to heed her own sound advice next time.