Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.
I was eighteen years old, and had not long moved to the United States to attend college. A new convert to country music thanks to American Idol, the likes of Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler and LeAnn Rimes had caught my interest the year previously and pushed me to tune in with an increased curiosity. As so many musical discoveries do, my introduction to Jewel happened by chance; she appeared as a guest judge during Idol’s season 6 auditions, in part to promote her 2006 record “Goodbye Alice In Wonderland.” I had never heard of her, thanks to growing up in a British and fairly unmusical household, but I paid attention and sought out the girl with the guitar, locating the CD in a local record store like we all apparently used to do. What far removed times they were (only ten years ago?!).
The result of my blind purchase was many, many hours filling my speakers, pouring over liner notes and lyrics, and immediately downloading a chunk of her back catalog from Limewire (nostalgia alert). What immediately struck me was the way Jewel’s intriguing vocal delivery and technically imperfect voice wrapped itself around her winding melodies and crashed against folk rock arrangements, framing each line and instrument with a conviction and a truth I had not heard anywhere else. It was a pop record with sonic bite, but torn from a poetic and gritty songwriting soul, layers upon layers of meaning throwing themselves open for interpretation in the most captivating way. Jewel has always been a master songstress, I know now, but here she bound her deep internal and social reflections with effortlessly catchy hooks and choppy guitars.
It would take many thousands of words to appropriately discuss and analyze the story of this album, so my apologies for perhaps not doing it justice in this piece. Jewel begins with the ubiquitous line “Listen dear / I need you to hear,” in “Again And Again,” thereby setting the tone not only for an album about and for her partner at the time, Ty Murray, but also inviting the listener into her realm for the messages she must convey. She has described “Wonderland” as a story, or a concert; recorded live, it is sequenced in such a way that the musical peaks and troughs follow the bend and shade of her lyrical masterpiece.
If each song is a chapter, then we enter the album halfway through the book. Contrary to what one might expect, the narrative does not begin upon first meeting or first falling in love; rather she deftly weans us in as she begs her lover to once again pick up their on-again, off-again relationship. It has the propositional nature of an initial infatuation but the deep-rooted urgency of a love unshaken, and the repetition of the refrain drums its essence into our heads; she is standing firm, and she is not going anywhere.
This segues into “Long Slow Slide,” the first example of Jewel’s crafty use of extended metaphor to tell a personal tale. The track is set into a circus backdrop, its own self-contained dystopian fairytale of cackling freaks and spooky ferris wheels, and yet her own vicious deconstruction of a depressive psyche, stuck to the ache of a bygone relationship whose memories cling to her like ghosts. These first two tracks are like light and shade, and yet they flow into each other as the sun slides behind the horizon. Within context, we also understand this track to chronicle her experiences in Hollywood and the peak of her pop career, each devastating lyric outlining the alienation and the rejection.
From here, Jewel chooses to be more explicit. For this is not just an album about a relationship, and she has far more to observe from the world than the conflict of her intimacy. The record’s crowning glory is its title track, and though “Goodbye Alice In Wonderland” is long, clocking in at almost six minutes, it serves as her most perfect narrative to date (and indeed, my favorite lyric of all time, from any artist). Within those six minutes, Jewel describes her leaving of Los Angeles and the wreckage it wrought of her. “Fame is filled with spoiled children / we grow fat on fantasy,” she sings in the pre-chorus, opting to cast aside the falsities and the fake promises of celebrity. “There is a difference between dreaming and pretending / I did not find paradise / it was only a reflection of my lonely mind wanting / what’s been missing in my life,” she concludes with a gutsy, throaty delivery during the first chorus. She is frank and upfront about the way in which fame ruined her just as it seemed the time of her life, and the truth in the darkness behind the glitter, including a personal betrayal that gave her perspective on her surroundings. “You forged my love just like a weapon / and you turned it against me like a knife / you broke my last heartstring / you opened up my eyes,” she asserts, as lush strings add depth and momentum to the gradually-building crescendo.
It is the bridge where she shines the brightest and the wisest, however. “Growing up is not an absence of dreaming / it’s being able to understand the different between / the ones you can hold / and the ones that you’ve been sold / and dreaming is a good thing ‘cause it brings new things to life / but pretending is an ending that perpetuates a lie / forgetting what you are / seeing for what you’ve been told,” she cries. The arrangement drops down for a second to highlight her mission statement, “Truth is stranger than fiction / this is my chance to get it right / life is much better without all of your pretty lies,” before the final triumph of her magnificent chorus.
Throughout, we feel as if Jewel is speaking directly to us, whether that be warning us about the temptations and the trickery of the outside world, or chronicling her rampant insomnia and intentional positivity on the anthemic “Good Day.” She is us, but more articulate, and when she sees through the constructed bullshit of Hollywood culture on “Satellite,” she does so with a snide accuracy that is hard not to giggle at. She paints a community of people whose emptiness is fed with drugs, fads and superficiality, singing with frustration, “And everybody is a nice body but / their souls are like shadows.”
While Jewel is the master of metaphor, she also doesn’t disguise weak ideas in fantastical language. Often she is blunt, to the point and almost shockingly honest, celebrating a newfound sureness of identity and values. On “Only One Too” she returns to her relationship, shrieking for her lover to commit and stop playing with her heart, ultimately finding security in the playful embrace of “Words Get In The Way.” She’s still in persuasive mode here, enticing her lover to come closer and open up, but she has him within her grasp now and she grapples with how to make her feelings and intentions the clearest. We get the sense that this album is something of a realization for Jewel; she is now aware of the lies of her former existence, and follows her lucky escape with the chasing of her authentic truth. She is determined and unassailable, and this continues on the epic guitar pop banger “Drive To You” (I mean – what a song). “I was blind now I have sight / I couldn’t leave you even if I tried / your heart beats inside of me,” she reveals, the most perfect and glorious love song on a record full of them.
Paradise never lasts for long, and Jewel is quick to remind us of that. “Last Dance Rodeo” paints a vivid picture of seedy hedonism and prostitute dreams in dirty dive bars and shabby hotels. Her “rodeo” reference directly implicates her real life partner at the time, Ty Murray, who made his name as a world champion rodeo cowboy, and weaves understanding sympathy with savage poignancy on the futility of his quest to feel whole. It is another masterpiece on a brilliant record, again rounding out at six minutes, and we feel fully immersed in the world she builds.
Next is a sweet alt-pop version of “Fragile Heart,” which appeared on her previous album as an electro-pop offering. The second edition is clearly the superior, and slots in well here as a plea in a blossoming relationship to be kind and careful with her. It pales in comparison to its subsequent neighbor, however, the indelible country confessional “Stephenville, TX” that finds its power and charm in conversational delivery and sly social commentary about her newfound home. “Housewives told to recapture their youth / by wearing floral print and suede / fixing their hairdos / with PC chemical-free hairspray / Martha Stewart taught ‘em to make on TV,” she smiles with a delightful lilt. She takes stock of who she is and where she’s ended up on this track, as she says “Trying to figure out who I am / now that the stardust has turned to sand / and the sand has turned to stone / on the starmaking machine.” It’s a far cry from the shallow glitter and glam of Hollywood and also from her childhood on an Alaskan ranch, as she settles into life in a small Texas city.
“I’m 31 years old / that ain’t the end / but it sure ain’t where I began,” she muses, evaluating the events and choices that brought her here. She mulls over the moving in with her partner as she disposes of his ex’s possessions, the evolution of her father’s role in life, the truth about her purpose on this earth, and the realities of her abilities and identity. She is brutally honest with herself, “A pretty mediocre cook / an even worse mathematician / maybe a mother one day,” and yet does not count herself out. “We all read magazines for the latest ways to behave,” she reasons. “So hey why not follow me / the blonde bombshell deity / I’ll sell you neat ideas without big words / and a little bit of cleavage to wash it all down.” As she looks to solidify just who she’s supposed to be and where she may fit, she appears to resolve her wondering with a willingness to go with the flow. Life is unpredictable as it would go on to prove for her, and it is as good a reflection on such a notion as any.
The record, like her future would, does not stick to marital bliss for long, and “Where You Are” is a more delicate folk song about the trials and tribulations of maintaining a healthy relationship when communication becomes difficult. She wails in desperation and segues into the closer “1000 Miles Away,” a track reminiscent of the tender, stripped back style she debuted with. Her wails turn into quivering yells and cries here, begging into the night for help on how to salvage a relationship so fraught with imagined distance. It is a jarring and unsettling note to end on, a reminder of life’s impermanence and how the record is simply a vignette of a story that started long ago and will continue for even longer. It is not complete, as none of us are, and that’s part of its magic and its grand intention.
What Jewel set out to create with “Goodbye Alice In Wonderland” is a statement, of art and identity and social commentary, of love and war and fear and of reconciling all these things as she entered her thirties and began to reflect on her wavering trajectory. Life takes us to strange and unknowable places, and no-one understands that better than Jewel. This album touched me and changed my life, and I continue to find new meaning and resonance in its carefully curated truths. Jewel has delivered many excellent records, but this remains my favorite; the perfect marriage of what she does best, illuminated by her genius.
Spin the album below: