Perfectly Clear

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It isn't hard to view Jewel's country music makeover on Perfectly Clear with a mildly cynical eye, especially as it follows her dance-pop shakeup on 2003's 0304 by a mere five years. Such whiplash changes in direction are bound to raise suspicion, but Jewel wears her country threads better than her diva hand-me-downs, possibly because it suits her mythical back-story of living out of the back of the truck but it's also a smaller leap from folk to least in theory, that is, as Perfectly Clear isn't quite a full-fledged country album. Like Bon Jovi before her and Jessica Simpson after, Jewel's country move is more about marketing than music, an adjustment that puts her in line with adults raised on Pieces of You but more likely to listen to Brad Paisley than Feist. There are fiddles and steel guitars threaded throughout the album but their presence is nearly subliminal at most points; they're felt, not heard, just enough to give it a country feel. The setting may be country -- courtesy of producer John Rich, whose production recalls his hazy, soft solo album rather than the gonzo strut of Big & Rich -- but Jewel is not a country singer, no matter how often she affects a twang. She's a folksinger, soaring with her long, lyrical phrases instead of aiming for the gut, something that grates when she does attempt something uptempo but she wisely avoids this pitfall through much of the album, choosing to dole out ballads and midtempo pop. This brings Perfectly Clear much closer to Pieces of You than any album she's made since, as it's filled with poppy, simple songs about relationships, never bogging down in portentous pretension, literary preoccupations, or glossy pop as she has in every record since. This doesn't necessarily make Perfectly Clear a "better" record -- some of those albums were pretty good even if they didn't adhere to the Jewel myth -- but it does mean it feels more like the Jewel that everybody came to love back in 1995, which is what it was intended to do. So it has the form and feel, but the devil is in the details, the songs that never quite hook and sometimes serve up some patently absurd moments, usually in the form of her overheated lyrics (which also betray how un-country she really is). Such details might be a deal-breaker for some, but Jewel feels and sounds comfortable here, something that will surely help her shift units with this record and will likely give her a long career, if she so chooses.

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