Jewel Kilcher embodied the essence of the 90’s post-Joni Mitchell folkie-popstar generation; whether she wanted this or not has never been sussed out completely. 1995’s Pieces of You was one of those once in a lifetime recordings that shattered barriers.
It left skeptical A&R men on their knees praising a product they most likely fought in its incubation period. Much later, when Jewel was two years shy of her 10th anniversary, her fourth long player 0304 (2003) was to be even more controversial and ground-breaking than her debut.
That it ended up becoming a hot talking point about authenticity, or lack thereof, when regarding women in the singer-songwriter mode overshadowed its brainy (and sexy) tricks. Further, Jewel’s sonic (and visual) makeover was more in tune with her fellow Venusian songwriters, past and present, than many knew.
The road to 0304 was fraught with many sharp detours. While the whole of Pieces of Me was based in restrained (partially live) folk music, its singles had been studio sweetened to give her a broader reach. Out of that decision, Jewel’s second record Spirit (1998) embraced the polish but didn’t back down on her soon-to-be trademarked lyrical mixture of naïveté and wisdom.
Her next offering, and first of the 00’s, was This Way (2001). Perched pristinely between the earthiness of Pieces of Me and the pop professionalism of Spirit, it had its own experienced rhythm. Jewel was growing up into a woman and her travels had clearly (re) shaped her world view and her artistic position in it. A reworking of one of This Way’s singles, “Serve the Ego,” became the flashpoint for the inspiration that’d come to term on 0304.
Immersed in the club urbanity of Los Angeles, Jewel became taken with dance music. As such, when it came time to release another single from This Way, Jewel selected “Serve the Ego” in 2002. It was retouched by several DJs of the period which drove the single to the top of the U.S. Dance chart. Work began quickly on her next project to build off the overall evolutionary momentum of This Way and fuse it with some of her new musical curiosities.
The project was described by Jewel as a “…modern interpretation of big band music. A record that is lyric-driven, like Cole Porter stuff, that also has a lot of swing…that combines dance, urban and folk music.” Primarily co-conceived between producer Lester Mendez and Jewel, she also brought along noted songwriter/producers Rick Nowels and Guy Chambers. Jewel was reaching, on the surface, for a massive overhaul of sound (and later image); could she actually pull it off?
The lyrics were witty and humorous; from their contents to their exterior expressions (“U & Me = Love”), some songs reflected the text first, talk later society of 2003. Dividing between observational satire and story telling, Jewel captured a culture that she was fast becoming assimilated into, but still innately separated from. Nowhere was that staged better than on “Intuition”; it landed lines like “I’m just a simple girl in a hi-tech digital world. Really trying to understand all that powers that rule this land.” Whether name checking Kate Moss and Charlie Sheen (who still abound in the tabloids today) or riding the accordion ‘n’ beats with an air of disconnected recall-meets-voyeurism, Jewel was mesmerizing.
The sexuality that bubbled on (the original and remixed) “Serve the Ego” caught fire on the late-night curtain closer of “Leave the Lights On”; the track saw Jewel sketching in tones of blues, lounge pop and jazz. Indeed, both the coquette “Sweet Temptation” and the dank desire of “Haunted” had Jewel’s voice all over the map; she flaunted her ability to sing in any fashion she liked.
Additional thoughts on her current “high life” forays included the neon sparkler “Yes U Can” whose nervous hand-claps and California guitar was a post-post-new wave raver. But Jewel also had social commentary worth sharing on “Stand” with its relaxed Marvin Gaye nod. The timely bite of “America” and the meditative “Becoming” stylistically cut across uptempo pop and the “folktronica” Jewel aptly described that she was trying to evoke. The tangy “Run 2 U” blended an “it sounds like a sample, but it isn’t really” vibe by way of faux horns with genteel acoustics over a razor-like groove; Jewel was in her new niche comfortably.
Jewel’s only stumble was her This Way backwards glance on 0304’s center with a collection of shiny folk-pop ballads that puddled into one another; an exception could be made for the country sway of “Fragile Heart” though.
The album’s title read prophetically like digital time capsule of where American society stood in 2003 / 2004; Jewel had pulled of a pop coup of epic proportions with only its length marring the record. Ready or not, Jewel had unexpectedly arrived as the intellectual pop priestess of the year.
Aiming for a summer score, Jewel unleashed “Intuition” as the first single from 0304 on 5/6/03. “Intuition” had an equally debated music video that got tongues wagging and helped the song hit respectable spots the world over: U.S. Hot 100 #20, U.S. Dance #1, Canada #34, AU #4, U.K. #52. The LP manifested the following month on 6/3/03. Her fourth album on the Atlantic Records label (Warner Bros. in outside territories) gave Jewel her highest U.S. chart debut (U.S. Billboard 200 #2). It logged 144,000 copies in its first week.
The global chart positions were either strong (Canada #9, ARIA #10) or weak (U.K. #79). The sales for 0304 did flame out quickly however, only claiming gold in America, Cananda and Australia.
Much of the 0304’s muted presence had to do with the fact that a noticeable segment of the record buying populace had mixed-to-negative feelings about Jewel’s pop platter presentation. jam! Showbiz pundit Darryl Sterdan summarized the short-sighted opinion shared by a percentage of her followers:
We know artists love to reinvent themselves, but this is nuts. After eight years and three solid albums of contemporary folk and rootsy pop, Jewel Kilcher has up and decided she wants to be — are you ready? — a dance-pop tart. No, really. On her fourth album 0304, the singer-songwriter trades in her jeans and flannel for day-glo duds from a Flashdance revival, buries her acoustic guitar under thumping beatboxes, booty-wiggling basses and squiggly robo-synths, cops the staccato arrangements and slick production of the Backstreet Boys, and puts her angelic, crystalline voice to work on insubstantial fluff stuffed with deep and timeless sentiments such as, “I wanna hold u tonight / It’ll be alright.” No Jewel, it won’t.
Sure, there are a few smarter cuts that work — “Leave the Lights On” and “Haunted” mine trip-hoppy veins, while “Sweet Temptation” and “Yes U Can” revive the new-wave sugar-buzz of The Bangles or Missing Persons. But the bulk of 0304 isn’t going to save her soul — or anyone else’s.
In one sweep Sterdan both praised and knocked Jewel for the reinvention he and others like him wanted for Jewel, but despised her for achieving. All Music Guide’s staunch Stephen Thomas Erlewine pegged 0304’s pattern:
The music on 0304 is the wild, weird result of Jewel’s desire to create a “modern interpretation of big band music. A record that is lyric-driven, like Cole Porter stuff, that also has a lot of swing…that combined dance, urban and folk music.” While the big band and Cole Porter allusions are a stretch — although it is true that this is as lyric-driven as her previous three records — with the assistance of producer Lester Mendez, she has managed to blend dance, urban and folk — complete with pop overtones, of course — in previously unimaginable ways.
Like Sheryl Crow’s eponymous second album, this picks up familiar strands of contemporary pop music and familiar themes in Jewel’s own work, but the way they’re assembled is disarmingly idiosyncratic — it has a polished, commercial sheen, but the songs take weird twists and turns in their arrangements, structure and lyrics (another thing this shares with Sheryl Crow is a predilection for odd pop-culture references and name-dropping).
Two more singles were pulled from the album: “Stand” (10/14/03: U.S. Dance #1, U.S. Adult Pop Songs #37, Netherlands #71) and “2 Become 1” (12/16/03: AU #49, U.S. Adult Pop Songs #33). The long player eventually moved 771,000 copies overall, according to its last certification.
Directed By: Marc Klasfeld
Jewel wasn’t the first female singer-songwriter to take chances musically. From Carly Simon, to Suzanne Vega and around to Tori Amos, all of those women had made dramatic turns with their sounds and looks. Somehow, to the majority of Jewel’s base who praised the former doe-eyed Alaskan guitarist, her shift toward anything other than what they deemed as “authentic” was counterfeit.
To be fair, Jewel did make the transition bumpier as seen in her coinciding Blender magazine photo shoot; complete with corsets and fussed hair, Jewel clearly rebelled against the idea of traditional femininity and intelligence being mutually exclusive. The public didn’t see the irony or the need to expand out of the confines of girlhood.
Jewel’s evolution over the next decade was bizarre as she marched to the drums of soft-to-spiky rock (Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, 2006) lullabies (Lullaby, 2009) and country (Perfectly Clear, 2008/Sweet and Wild, 2010). Each record met different fates, her country material received the commercial adulation, but she never again approached the heights scaled with This Way and 0304. 0304 continued to ripple throughout Jewel’s discography as heard on her retooled versions of “Fragile Heart” on Goodbye Alice in Wonderland and “2 Become 1” on Perfectly Clear.
Jewel took a major risk with 0304, winning and losing various things in the process. Objectively, if one understands the track on which Jewel’s music was running, they’d see that 0304 was the natural extension of a woman coming into her own. Jewel was strong enough to make people think, laugh and dance with her even if it meant being misunderstood. Ranking: Semi-Classic
[Editor’s Note: 0304 is out of print physically but in print digitally. Physical copies can be obtained easily in used music retailers. For current information on Jewel, visit her official website.-QH]