Jewel – Picking Up The Pieces (ALBUM REVIEW)

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jewel_picking-up-the-pieces_2015Many, including Jewel herself, have dubbed her latest album Picking Up The Pieces as a logical companion, or book-end, to her smash debut Pieces of You (1995). Except for diehard fans, though, people forget that Pieces of You was sprawling, slightly meandering, utterly honest, difficult, vulnerable, and razor sharp in its grappling with human flaws and emotions – it was not a neatly packaged album like many other famous, major-label debuts, which perhaps is why it took two years to break. But when it did, people connected to Jewel’s open-hearted and unrelenting gaze into the psyche, and were willing to go with her through the album’s dark twists and turns. But since then, Pieces has essentially been distilled to its major hit singles: “Who Will Save Your Soul,” “You Were Meant For Me,” “Foolish Games” and to some extent “Morning Song.”

This is natural, especially when radio constantly played those first three songs and their accompanying music videos were always on MTV and VH1. Her folk music played between Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, but found a following that grew way beyond niche. Add in a fairly grueling touring schedule, including opening for Bob Dylan, Neil Young, headlining Lilith Fair with other major 90’s  acts and you can see why people would crave a return to the Pieces of You aesthetic, but perhaps also why they’d forgotten what exactly that sounded like.

What’s so brilliant about Picking Up The Pieces, Jewel’s new album and first on Sugar Hill Records, is that it isn’t a nostalgia act. It isn’t her proverbially throwing up her hands and writing what the masses want to hear. It doesn’t compromise, but instead it takes some of her strongest songs from early in her career, emboldens her vocals, adds in some fantastic new songs and finds a production style that offers a raw, delightful look into what makes Jewel such a compelling singer/songwriter.

The album opens with “Love Used To Be,” one of the strongest songs she’s written since 2001’s This Way. It infuses her poetic sensibilities with a finger-picked guitar part, slowly building to a cathartic release at the end of the song. It catalogues the end of a relationship and the inevitable emotional fallout, but with a maturity and thoughtfulness that eschews bitterness and instead embraces growth and understanding. It signals that despite divorce and being in the business for over twenty years, this could be a period of intensely potent artistic expression. It’s a daring move to put this song first on the album – on one hand, it makes sense considering the recent upheaval in her personal life, but it’s also pretty different than what you hear on Pieces of You, which actually strengthens the album by building a foundation for itself that is firmly its own, and not merely a reflection of her debut.

“A Boy Needs a Bike” and “Everything Breaks” follow – both songs that have been in Jewel’s catalogue since the mid-90s. The former receives a more radio-friendly production, and the addition of a stronger band presence during the chorus adds weight to the song, but doesn’t lose the innocence and story-telling lilt of the piece. “Everything Breaks” is a standout – it’s a little less stripped down than in previous incarnations, but Jewel’s voice shines throughout.

Picking Up The Pieces is the first album that really showcases the strength, vitality and power of Jewel’s voice throughout, unvarnished and without interruption. On Pieces of You, there’s a clear discomfort in the studio tracks (she’s joked about it being her “Kermit the Frog” voice), and Spirit and This Way can veer a bit towards a radio-friendly voice that wasn’t as audible in her live shows. Picking Up The Pieces sounds like the first time she entered the studio and wasn’t afraid to step into the magnitude of her own voice. In her new book Never Broken, she writes about seeing shapes when creating a melody and understanding the technicalities of her voice, like falsetto, melisma, vibrato and yodeling, and how to control those to express emotion. In songs from Picking Up The Pieces like “Carnivore,” “Everything Breaks,” “Mercy” and “Nicotine Love” you can hear with crystal clear audio and the vocals so close up in the mix how strong Jewel’s voice really is, and what a gift it is to get it in such form twenty years into her career.

The past decade has been rough for Jewel and Jewel fans- children’s albums that came off as cloying rather than sweet, blatant attempts to break into country, which led to production choices that betrayed her strength in songwriting (2008’s Perfectly Clear is the main offender, with songs like “Rosey & Mick,” which used to be dark, haunting Dylan-like ballads being turned into saccharine country shuffles), and her commercial ventures, like PureVia and Swiffer.

And on Picking Up The Pieces, there are a couple missteps, but they’re vastly outweighed by the power and vitality of the rest of the album. “Plain Jane” feels written just for radio, but instead of highlighting cliché comes off as trite and cliché itself. And “It Doesn’t Hurt Right Now” just doesn’t connect – perhaps because of Rodney Crowell’s duet line. But that said, the remaining twelve tracks are all excellent, run the gamut in terms of structure and production, but ultimately shows what an incredible songwriter Jewel really is.

How interesting and rewarding it is that the first single from the album was “My Father’s Daughter,” which features Dolly Parton. The lyrics are heartfelt, simple and to the point, led by a minor key that breaks into major for the chorus, but it’s when you hear Dolly and Jewel sing together that it really comes together. At one point, Jewel takes harmony while Dolly sings lead, and then they switch. It’s a great parallel for Jewel’s career – she’s been able to sing with music’s legends, but still carve out a path that is uniquely hers. That path is often winding and rough-hewn, but it’s honest. And Picking Up The Pieces shows that Jewel isn’t just a follower – she’s a great in her own right.

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3 Responses

  1. Great review, though I’d have to disagree with the thumbs down for It Does’t Hurt Right Now; it’s one of my favorite tunes on the album. (But agree completely with the Plain Jane assessment – it’s the obvious negative standout here).

    I’d also recommend a second listen to Lullaby – the second kids’ album was a complete throwaway, but Lullaby has some stellar originals and covers. Circle Song and Raven are two of her finest songs of the post-This Way decade. All The Animals, Forever And A Day, Cowboy’s Lament – I listen to a lot of that album almost as much as the first trio.

    Mostly I’m just thrilled with this stellar return to form, and hope this isn’t her last “folk” album for another 20 years!

  2. i think plain jane is lyrically like her older songs.. for example. … “Jesus Loves You” “Fat Boy” etc,…musically i can see how it’s radio-ish for these times but i feel if it was musically like songs mentioned, it would be raw just like the others on this album

  3. It is always hard to highlight which is which, when it comes to choosing the best song on Jewel’s album. In my opinion, Picking Up The Pieces – is Jewel’s way of letting ( everyone who listens to her ) us see how matured she has become both as a singer and a songwriter. It is now proven and certified her being ‘The Best Female Singer/Songwriter of her generation.” as most of her 90’s contemporaries we’re not able to achieve longevity in their respective careers as much as Jewel did, and she’s still doing it. Her strength is her staying power, she’s able to stand thru the test of times, and she’s standing still.
    Whatever happen to Alanis Morissette? Joan Osbourne? Paula Cole? Sarah MacLachan and the Lilith Fair gang? Where are they?
    Jewel may not be the as famous as she used to be in 90’s but she’s very much around.
    She may not have any Grammy Award but she’s still very much around.
    She may not be listed on #1 song or # 1 album anymore but she’s till very much around.
    Going back to her 2015 album, each song is a masterpiece. You tend to change what you thought the best after every listen on each particular song. So the moment you’re done with all 14 songs, picking up the best would be difficult. And it will continue to change your mind in every listen, even after 5 years, it’s still the same, it’s still hard to choose which is the best song in the album. That’s exactly the same with her other albums like the 1998 released “Spirit” – I challenge you to listen to the whole album then choose the best song, you’ll never succeed. Same with her debut album Pieces of You, 2001 This Way’, 2003 O3O4, and so on and so forth.
    What is my point here?
    I don’t know, but I would just like to let everybody know that JEWEL IS THE BEST FEMALE TROUBADOR OF ALL GENERATION.

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