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The Family Jewel

[whitespace] Jewel
We're Tired, We're Weary: But Atlantic Records is betting that we're not yet worn out by Jewel's brand of pure, soft folk music.

With help from her mother, Jewel transforms sentiment into sanctimony on sweet new album, 'Spirit'

By Gina Arnold

GENERALLY SPEAKING, the past couple of years have been bad ones for the music industry. Yet despite the imminent demise of various record labels, the failure of some huge acts (R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish) to equal the success of their biggest hits and a complete absence of promising newcomers, this November abounds with a large number of new CD titles.

The charge is being led by Spirit (Atlantic Records), the long-awaited second LP by singer-songwriter Jewel. Given her track record--her 1995 debut, Pieces of You, sold eight million copies in America alone, and her fans are so loyal that even her abysmal book of poetry, A Night Without Armor, spent time on The New York Times bestseller list--the new album may help her label out of a jam. But one spin of Spirit is proof positive that Jewel is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Spirit is a sickly sweet amalgam of pretty notes and sentimental sentiments, the kind that are loosely termed "folk" by those who erroneously believe that word is synonymous with "soft" or "gutless." The record also features the mysterious services of a huge number of collaborators, including Madonna sideman Patrick Leonard, songwriter Jude Cole and, on one track, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.

But the album is, not to beat around the bush, terrible, devoid of any virtues other than crystalline production values and, for those who like it, 55 straight minutes of Jewel's high, true and admittedly pretty voice.

Alas, negating her one strength is her biggest weakness: sanctimoniousness filtered through some truly awful lyrics. Her songs abound with absurdities, ranging from simple statements of misfact, like "Barcelona, where the winds all blow," to mixed metaphors like "You're drowning in deep water/and you wake up making love to the wall." (Now there's a startling image.) Only the initial single "Hands," co-written by Leonard, bothers to muster up a legitimate, catchy, chorus.

Instead, for the most part, Jewel has been given carte blanche to meander all over the place with her words, chords and fluttery vocal stylings. Mostly, Jewel seems to exist in a vacuum, uninfluenced by the more formal talents of older artists, although "Do You" is an homage to Bob Dylan--or maybe it's to Sheryl Crow. Anyway, the song involves a wordy, disjointed lyrical meter and fake rebellious sentiments like "We all want to beat the system." There is also a "deep" conclusion of moral outrage: "God kills children with our very own hands!"

THE REST of the record is, as the press kit says, "unfettered Jewel," and believe me, she needs fettering. Pieces of You--written when she was 19--is also fairly cloying, but at least Jewel's ambitiousness was held somewhat in check by little, simple, love songs. Now, at age 24, she has the temerity to envision herself as some kind of global spiritual leader: Jewel as Gandhi or as Martin Luther King Jr.

"I've heard your anguish, I've heard your hearts cry out," she sings on "Life Uncommon," another Dylanny number. "We're tired, we're weary, but we're not worn out!/Come on, you unbelievers! Move out of the way!/There is a new army coming/and we are armed with faith!/To live, we must give!/And lend our voices only to sounds of freedom."

In short, despite--or perhaps because of--a thin veneer of New Age spirituality, Spirit is a deeply shallow record. Some people will probably like it, of course--after all, some people like Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jerry Springer and Ken Starr. They also like Celine Dion, but Jewel makes Celine look like Patti Smith.

The truth is that one either loves or hates Jewel on contact. And I must admit to being even more prejudiced against her by having accidentally read her press kit before listening to Spirit. In it, she waxes painfully profound: "Spirit is the force within and around us that moves us to the highest expression of our nature as human beings" and "My writing and my music are a study in emotion and evolution."

According to the press kit, Jewel is managed by her mother, Nedra Carroll, who duets with her on two numbers. Nedra and Jewel are currently using their vast wealth to start a nonprofit foundation called Higher Ground for Humanity. The organization plans on supporting "the positive spiritual evolution of human awareness and action." It will invest in organizations like Friends of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the Center for the Study of Consciousness. Higher Ground for Humanity also plans on developing an alternative health and healing clinic in New Delhi, India, where, apparently, the need for sterile needles and penicillin is superseded by the need for alternative methods of healing.

Of course, none of this has much to do with Jewel's music, except, as Jewel herself points out, insofar as "music is a wonderful expression ... but the larger responsibility is to use [it] to benefit humanity." On second thought, Jewel must have some talent, because her music certainly expresses her amazing pretensions and muddled thinking. Those aspects come through loud and clear on Spirit.

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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