There isn’t much to love about Jewel’s latest country album. Produced by Nathan Chapman [Taylor Swift], the generally innocuous eleven-song collection (titled Sweet and Wild) is riddled with the kind of heavy-handed lyrical clichés and soft-rock sound that’s come to characterize Jewel’s music since well before her country crossover.
As a songwriter, Jewel’s been struggling to find a voice that fits her ever since her ubiquitous folk-rock debut Pieces of You was released in 1996. That album was a raw affair, unbridled by any sense of craft or convention. She wasn’t writing songs so much as writing poetry, but she pounded out her passions with a few chords and a stirring warble of a voice. To this day, that record remains one of music’s best albums—a musical portrait of an angst-ridden young woman which could have come from no other voice and at no other time in history.
How do you follow up something like that? 1998’s Spirit was a more mature, comfortable effort that found Jewel trying to learn how to be a multi-platinum songwriter. Whereas before, she delivered the musical equivalent to free verse poetry, Spirit came with expectations—both artistic and commercial. The album wasn’t a disaster in either regard, but it wasn’t really the same artist. There may, in fact, be few greater examples of album-to-album contrast than the turmoil of Pieces of You and the relative tranquility of Spirit.
From there, she bounced between pop, light rock and even dance—the genre where she has found her most chart success (thanks to three successive dance #1s). And then there was country.
All along that path, she’s grown to have greater command of songwriting techniques, and she’s expanded her collaborative circle to include some of the most notable creative forces from all genres of music. Yet, she’s never really tapped in to the same well of insight that she drew from when she was younger.
Not until now, not until this one track from this otherwise unremarkable collection. “Ten” (co-written with Dave Berg) is glossy and fully aligned with country music’s mainstream. But it’s also one of the best songs she’s ever written—certainly the best song she’s written in a decade. “Ten” is not just a tight song, it’s a perfect song.
The track boasts a plucky banjo and the faint wail of a steel guitar, but Chapman smartly keeps most of the musical augmentation in a supporting role to Jewel’s incredible voice.
The real story here, however, is just how essential these lyrics are. “Ten” tells the story of a woman who, in the midst of fights with her lover, stops and counts to ten. As she counts through the chorus, we get to hear what goes on in her mind. “One, I still wanna hate you/Two, three I still wanna leave,” she sings.
This isn’t your cookie-cutter “we’ve all got problems” bickering, as typically portrayed on country radio. This is real. This is a drag it out, scream and shout kind of fight. This is the kind of fight that’s so frustrating, so infuriating, so demoralizing, that it just seems like the best thing you can do is pack up your bag and go.
Because anything has to be better than this.
A fight like that spirals out of control, and like a snowball rolling down a mountain, it builds upon itself. The words get meaner and the pain grows deeper.
Jewel reminds us that, in that moment, we have to hold on. And, that if we can just get to ten we might not even remember what we were fighting about in the first place.
“Ten” is smart, sensitive and powerful. Here’s hoping that Jewel—after all of these years—has finally voice that voice she’s been searching for.