Late 90s Spirit Pop Part 1: Jewel's Spirit

"Late 90s Spirit Pop" is a five-part review series about the unusual and interesting boom in "spiritual" pop albums during 1998 and 1999. For this series, I will explore five records indicative of this movement.

When Jewel released her sophomore record, Spirit, she had already risen to fame with her confessional folk-pop debut and published a clumsy but lucrative collection of poetry. It was also a transitional time for pop music; alternative music was ceding the throne to teen pop (including NSYNC and Britney Spears) and dance music (like Cher's "Believe"). This period marked an evolution for Jewel as well. Like many of her singer/songwriter peers, she had mined the romantic well with "You Were Meant for Me" and "Foolish Games," as well as toyed with social commentary on "Who Will Save Your Soul." Thus, she (perhaps logically) chose to forge new territory with a spiritual record.  

Spirit boasts a sleeker exterior than it's predecessor, Pieces of Me, that smooths out Jewel's awkward charm, but the newer record also works as a more fully realized pop album.  Much of this is thanks to producer Patrick Leonard, who creates lush settings for the singer's earnest lyrics. Some of the loftier songs, like the Columbine-inspired "Innocence Maintained" and the clumsy story-song "Fat Boy," get strangled by their own premises. However, they are the exceptions. The opener, "Deep Water," has strong folk bones, "What's Simple is True" works as a love ballad, "Jupiter" sways with sexiness, and (the best track overall) "Down So Long" filters urban melancholy and philosophical desire through a great chorus. These tracks work because they ground Jewel's spiritual musings in clear images and physical details, including the pleasure of sex.

The album is perhaps best remembered for the hit track, "Hands," an earnest call-to-arms that is John Lennon's "Imagine" mixed with Jewel's penchant for the dramatic. Songs like "Hands," including the lovely closer "Absence of Fear," are interesting creatures sixteen years later. First, they proffer a hope and spiritual wonder that has fallen out of fashion on Top 40 radio. They also manage to be encouraging without relying on dance beats and belted choruses, as is today's fashion. Thus, they sound understated and gorgeous, if a bit stuffy.

Today, an artist would not find commercial success with a record like Spirit (Jewel sold 3.7 million copies of the album) and even Jewel would go on to make a much better record with her follow-up, This Way (2002). Yet, none of these details should distract from what an intriguing and brave album Spirit remains. With it, Jewel not only attempted to publicly wrestle with her own religious questions and inspire people to live compassionately (on "Hands" in particular), she also made a pretty, cohesive, and carefully-constructed pop album.


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