On Perfectly Clear, her first foray into country music, Jewel occasionally demonstrated an intuitive understanding of the genre and brought a mature point of view to a scene that had been overrun by youthful singer-songwriters without anything substantive to say. If the record didn’t sound any more “country” than Pieces of You, it was at least noteworthy for the way the genre’s straightforward narratives and economic use of language reigned in some of Jewel’s worst tendencies as a songwriter. It’s a real shame, then, that Sweet and Wild jettisons most of the admirable qualities of its predecessor and finds Jewel attempting to fall in line with the likes of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum.
Sure, there’s logic to emulating some of the most commercially successful artists in contemporary country, but Jewel loses sight of her own strengths in doing so. Middling lead single “Stay Here Forever,” which was previewed on the soundtrack to the execrable Valentine’s Day, lacks a strong hook and instead tries to coast by on empty clichés like “This feels so right/It can’t be wrong.” The song’s relative simplicity is really all it has going for it, but it’s a fair sight better than some of the album’s other love songs. Throw in a line about a duvet cover that smells of normalcy and “Summer Home in Your Arms” could have been lifted directly from A Night Without Armor, her book of overwritten poetry. “I Love You Forever,” which plays like a Swift song without the whimsy, is as vapid as anything she’s ever written. But the fact that she uses her mewling little-girl voice to sing the chorus actively baits comparisons to, of all things, Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever,” and is every bit as hyperglycemic and simpering.
Even when she does attempt to stick to more familiar country-songwriting standards, the results are uneven. Opener “No Good in Goodbye” makes excellent use of repeated phrases to give the song an interesting structure, while “Satisfied” employs some clear, simple imagery to elevate a plainspoken but effective “advice” song. The one song on the album that she didn’t write, “Bad As It Gets,” sounds the most like a viable country radio single, even if it’s more along the lines of something Carrie Underwood or Sugarland would perform. Her attempt at writing a woman-on-the-verge narrative, “Fading,” ends up playing as camp, with a woman having some kind of a psychotic break and stripping naked in a Wal-Mart bathroom where “the air smells like urine/It’s getting hard to breathe.”
Like so much of the album, “Fading” just seems conflicted about its direction. Jewel and co-producer Nathan Chapman add occasional flourishes of traditional country instrumentation, but the album sounds far more like an adult pop record than did Perfectly Clear. Since that album was only somewhat successful in establishing Jewel as a country artist, the decision to make Sweet and Wild a more heavily pop-leaning album raises questions about how seriously Jewel wants to make it as a country singer. Perfectly Clear suggested that she has the potential to make a great country album, but the uneven Sweet and Wild certainly isn’t it.