Morissette calls her follow-up Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, and in case you can't tell from the title, she's not big on false modesty. She makes claims on hard rock, soft rock, spacey drum loops and harmonica solos, all while flaunting her titanic pop ambition and updating us on her latest spiritual journeys. Trying to read Alanis' mind is like trying to follow the plot of an Elvis movie you have to let both artists just clobber you with their unmitigated showbiz gall, and Alanis is one megastar who knows how to translate her gall into dynamic rock & roll. It's her party, and she'll thank India if she wants to. "Thank U" could've been a pretentious disaster, but instead it's a pretentious stroke of brilliance she finds something shockingly smart to say about her spiritual crises, riding an indelible Eighties AOR synth hook and wailing like Robert Plant stealing "Kashmir" back from Jimmy Page and Puffy. When she sings "Thank you, India/Thank you, Providence," it's a quintessentially Alanistic moment you can't be sure whether she's bowing down to divine providence or to the city in Rhode Island where they drink Narragansett beer, and it sounds fabulous either way.
Morissette co-produced Junkie herself with regular collaborator Glen Ballard, and she obviously has fun twiddling the knobs in the psychedelic rant "Front Row." The dense music complements the peaceful vibe of the lyrics. She sings a couple of sympathetic odes to her parents, and in "Unsent" she reads forgiving letters to all the boys she's loved before. Since the ex-boyfriends appear by first name, you can play "You're So Vain" with the song. But the boldest, sweetest statement here is the muted ballad "That I Would Be Good," a self-esteem pep talk that closes with a flute-solo coda. Alanis plays her own flute solo, and she works her ass off to get it right, breathing too hard between the notes, but she wins you over with her sheer daring; it isn't every day that a megastar comes right out and auditions for you.
Jewel sure makes a colorful pop star, and if she isn't in Morissette's class as a song crafter, she's got her own style of musical comfort food. When Spirit is good, it's like a steaming bowl of instant macaroni and cheese; when it's bad, it's like the same macaroni and cheese two hours later. Unfortunately, Spirit does a poor job of showing off Jewel's star quality, displaying none of her chutzpah, charm or humor. The strongest songs here are the sentimental love ballads in the mode of her biggest and best hit, "You Were Meant for Me." "Jupiter," "Kiss the Flame" and "Enter From the East" sum up the Jewel school of romance, with flames, shadows, starry starry nights and mysterious men of the land. The spare acoustic sound suits these scenarios, and Jewel comes up with a classic seduction line: "My heart has four empty rooms/Three wait for lightning, and one waits for you." It's such a good line that she can't resist recycling it four songs later, and you don't even mind.
Jewel's sincere sentiment has its attractions in a time of irony overload; she plays John Denver to Dylanesque tricksters like Courtney Love and Beck. But John Denver was sensible enough to stick to catchy songs about country roads and rocky mountains, while Jewel spends most of Spirit straining for grand meaning-of-life statements. She keeps railing against the world for not being as sentimental as she is, and nothing ruins perfectly good pop sentimentality like getting preachy about it. Garbled tirades like "Innocence Maintained" take forever to say nothing in particular something about how niceness is better than not-niceness, with not-niceness being your fault and the music is too flat to help. Despite the presence of Madonna producer Patrick Leonard, Spirit rehashes the sound and mood of Pieces of You, not a good sign for a young artist overdue to move to the grown-ups' table. Jewel is clearly counting on long-term stardom, and she's ambitious enough to learn new tricks if she needs them to stay on top, which, on the evidence of Spirit, she does. She should pick up some tricks from her fellow Class of '95 grad Alanis Morissette, who proves that soft-rock ingénues can conquer adulthood on their own eccentric terms and make some noise when they get there.
(Posted: Dec 10, 1998)
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