In fact, the album track “Stephenville, Texas,” boasts some of Wonderland‘s most deft–and slightly self-deprecating–social criticism: “So why not follow me, the blond bombshell deity/I’ll sell you neat ideas without big words/and a little bit of cleavage to help wash it all down.” Such lyrics are frequently woven throughout Jewel’s albums. This Way’s “Jesus Loves You” memorably skewers religious hypocrisy, and yet Jewel is not a songwriter with a reputation for biting political criticisms.
“It’s funny what I’ve gotten away with,” she says.”I think I called Hitler gay on [Spirit‘s “Innocence Maintained”], and I thought I was going to get murdered. I talked about the Midwest and how it makes people ‘spread their legs for ignorance.’ It was really lyrically brutal, but I guess the production was so pretty and I sang it so sweetly that everyone was kind of like, ‘Aw, we love her…that sweet girl.’ I was really shocked.”
Jewel doesn’t want to be known as a tedious buzz-kill either. In fact, she makes a point never to be didactic, she says. One year while attending the Democratic National Convention, she got the idea for a song called “The New Wild West.” “You see the ghosts of the buffalo moving both fierce and slow/like glittering prophesies on the edge of the horizon.” She couldn’t seem to finish it without devolving into preachiness, and it wasn’t until years later (when she was assembling This Way) that it clicked into place.
It’s not uncommon, she says, for her to abandon a song halfway through the writing process if she realizes it’s not very good. But she’s also careful throughout the process to understand what a song’s purpose is, and not to try to sculpt it into something it doesn’t want to be. “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland,” for example, is not only the album’s title track but it’s a dramatic centerpiece–and it’s crucial to the album’s message. Clocking in at six minutes, though, it’s not exactly radio-ready.
“Some songs…it’s just not their job,” she says. “The job of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was not to be a single; it was just to say something I needed to say and it took that long to say it,” “It took three verses before the chorus and it works. Hopefully, it’s like a movie…you get caught up in the world and it passes quickly.”
Much of Jewel’s schooling in song construction came from her father, with whom she performed as a duo act as a child. He taught her tons of rock ‘n’ roll classics, from “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Brown-Eyed Girl.” In some cases, it was years before she heard the original artists’ recordings of the tunes, but the process of learning them and then singing them over and over provided some very specific instruction about musical composition.
“I think it taught me a really instinctual, innate sense of song structure and lyric,” she says. “I was so into words and writing that I was always analyzing, ‘Ooh I like the way that lyric fits,’ or ‘I like the way that melody goes up.'”