Album Review: “Picking Up the Pieces” Has Jewel Picking Up Where She Left Off

Jewel

Jewel released new music in the vein of her earliest work. And it’s AMAZING.

Picking Up the Pieces is Jewel’s latest album, released in September of 2015, and it features new songs, including collaborations with country veterans Rodney Crowell and Dolly Parton, alongside songs she’s been performing live since her seminal debut album Pieces of You was released almost 20 years ago. Jewel self-produced the album, recorded it entirely in Nashville, and released it on Sugar Hill Records, primarily known as a bluegrass and Americana label. Since Jewel’s last few albums have ranged from country to children’s music, the album represents both a departure for Jewel’s recent work and a return to her roots.

The entire album is a showcase for Jewel’s immense talents in singing, songwriting, and production. In the spirit of her debut release, which was recorded live at a café in San Diego where she often played, Jewel recorded much of the album live at The Standard in Nashville. Her vocals capture the energy of her live performances in a way that none of her other releases have, literally ever. She transitions effortlessly from powerful growl to whisper to clear soprano to almost spoken word, propelling her audience through the emotional journey of her stories. Particular standouts vocally include “Love Used to Be,” in which her mellow, speech-like vocals build and give way to an exasperated shout at the climax of the song; “Everything Breaks,” where her patented flips from chest to head voice offer text painting to the “break” idea; “My Father’s Daughter,” which features sublimely clear vocals from both Jewel and Parton; and “Carnivore,” in which Jewel demands her voice demonstrate the pain and power in her lyrics from beginning to end. Her vocal performance on this entire album is just incredible, and is undoubtedly her best to date.

In terms of the songs themselves, Jewel blends the old with the new seamlessly by focusing on inventive yet simple arrangements and on several common themes. Among these themes are family (the traits inherited and the sacrifices made), loss of love (at least partly inspired by her divorce), and brokenness. It is the last theme that interests me the most, as it’s the one that has followed her through her entire career (there’s that line in “Hands:” “I am never broken”) and has probably changed the most. It’s evident even within this album, since “Everything Breaks,” a heartbroken acknowledgment of an ended relationship, has been around since the mid-90s while “Mercy,” the final song on the album, is a new offering. In “Mercy,” Jewel attests that she will “keep being broken until [she] remain[s] open,” a stark change from her resistance to brokenness in “Everything Breaks” and “Family Tree,” (“If I don’t learn to bend, I know I’m gonna break just like you did”). It seems Jewel has discovered her true strength as an artist, which is her bravery in sharing her darkness; she is a pure, raw nerve seemingly unburdened by any fear of expressing her every emotion, and it is utterly cathartic to experience these emotions with her.

Her arrangements are well done, mixing simple acoustic guitar ballads with fuller, more groove-oriented numbers. I love her choice to keep many of her older songs, like “Carnivore,” accompanied only by acoustic guitar to keep the live-performance feel. On “Love Used to Be,” which is the strongest track on the album in my opinion, she tastefully builds the arrangement from acoustic guitar to militaristic drums to keys and electric guitar adding just the right touches as her voice reaches its apex. “His Pleasure is My Pain” blends sitar and Eastern influence with folksy, spoken poetry reaching a disarmingly dissonant conclusion (and I’ll point out, her chorus of “Yes, it’s true I’m too sensitive, but he takes pleasure in my pain” seems like the inevitable outcome of the chorus “I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way,” from “I’m Sensitive” on Pieces of You). “Nicotine Love,” Jewel’s ode to addicting love, uses strings marvelously inventively, with playfully taunting staccato juxtaposed with arduous tremolo. There are some misses—“Here When Gone,” another of Jewel’s live-performance staples, develops her best groove of the album in the verses only to drop it for a stilted country shuffle in the choruses, and “Plain Jane,” while lyrically inventive and musically playful, suffers from lyric scansion problems in chorus that cause it to fall a bit flat overall. Nevertheless, the album flows well and represents Jewel’s musical as well as lyrical evolution.

Jewel has had a lot of time since Pieces of You was released, when she was just 21 years old, to grow and experiment as an artist. And she certainly has, though not always to the delight of her fans; while her songwriting has remained strong throughout her career, her various stylistic incarnations, from country to children’s music to dance pop, had left her fans wondering who she was trying to be musically, and when she’d find herself again. She’s been a personal inspiration for me, as a little girl who played guitar, and I remember when she released “Intuition” from her foray into pop music 0304. I felt like I’d lost her to the Britneys and Christinas of the world. I cannot adequately express how fulfilling it is to me to see her journey come full circle and to hear her embrace her true style as an artist.

Returning to her folk roots was surely not as easy for Jewel as it might sound—I have no doubt she worried that the record might sound dated, or that it might seem like she was trying too hard to repeat her greatest success. Thankfully, Picking Up the Pieces honors the spirit of Pieces of You without copying it or pretending that Jewel hasn’t evolved in 20 years; her growth as a singer, songwriter, producer, and artist is evident in examining the two. Picking Up the Pieces presents a wiser, more contemplative, more somber Jewel than her first album depicts. Her lyrical style is less the gushing, earnest ingénue and more the thoughtful, evocative storyteller, even in songs that she’s been performing since her Lilith Fair days.

But really, the greatest triumph of this album is the tenacity and strength Jewel finds in raw, unfettered emotion. Her voice soars with every growl, whisper, croon, and crack, and her lyrics demonstrate the beauty she has found in brokenness. This is her gift to her fans, this is who she is, and it is thrilling to see she has finally found it.

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