In the handwritten liner notes to her new album, Greatest Hits, Jewel admits that fans could simply create their own collections of an artist’s music on iTunes rather than “fork over hard earned dough” on a new compilation. But for a singer-songwriter whose singles were so frequently remixed and re-recorded for mass consumption, most of which weren’t widely available until now, Jewel’s Greatest Hits should be an exception to the rule.
To put Jewel’s popularity in perspective, in the wake of grunge and gangsta rap, Atlantic Records shipped 12 million copies of her debut, a bona-fide folk album that originally didn’t include the pop versions of her two biggest hits, “You Were Meant for Me” and “Foolish Games.” Perhaps to compensate, Greatest Hits includes two additional new versions of those songs, featuring the Pistol Annies and Kelly Clarkson, respectively. While the Batman & Robin incarnation of “Foolish Games” needed no improvement, the newly recorded rendition of “You Were Meant for Me” is notably transformed from a syrupy, stomach-turning valentine to a comparatively brooding country ballad: “I feel half-alive, but I’m mostly dead,” Jewel sings, lagging pointedly behind the beat because she ostensibly doesn’t have the will anymore.
It’s never been cool to like Jewel. Even her name begs you not to take her too seriously. But “Foolish Games,” a female-centric take on Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” partly inspired by the poetry of Pablo Neruda, remains one of the great pop songs of the ‘90s (she rightly calls it “the saddest of empowering songs”), buoyed by the singer’s impeccably wrenching vocal performance. It’s Jewel’s voice, distinct and versatile both in genre and range, that makes her occasional lapses into excessive earnestness and dubious couplets, forgivable. To wit, the way she painfully elongates the word “coin” during the second verse of the underappreciated “Down So Long” is immediately forgotten by the time she grittily belts out the song’s final chorus.
Greatest Hits depicts Jewel’s progression from folk singer to pop star to country convert as a natural progression rather than the hit-chasing maneuvering it often felt like at the time, and aside from the inclusion of Goodbye Alice in Wonderland‘s “Good Day,” as opposed to that album’s lead single, “Again and Again,” or title track (which nakedly and sharply recounts Jewel’s struggle with the music industry and fame), the tracklisting gets it mostly right. That it’s unclear whether the album’s new offering, “Two Hearts Breaking,” is a throwback to Jewel’s Top 40 days or another entry in her growing country canon speaks to the futility of genre labels to begin with. Jewel was always the original Taylor Swift.