”Just cash in,” Jewel whispers early on in 0304. The lyric begs to be cast as the rationale for the former van dweller’s entire album, awash as it is in suburban-dance-club beats (courtesy of Shakira producer Lester Mendez), ingratiating choruses, and alphanumeric titles (e.g., ”2 Find U”). But unlike, say, Liz Phair, Jewel has no real roots to betray. Since 1995’s intermittently charming pseudo-folk debut, ”Pieces of You,” her discs have been notable mainly for teeth-grindingly didactic lyrics (”Only kindness matters”) and the absence of a signature sound.
Sellout move or not, ”0304”’s unexpected dance-pop vibrancy makes it Jewel’s best album – or, for detractors, her least unbearable. The perkiest tracks, like the life-is-a-highway anthem ”Doin’ Fine,” are the best ones, even when they leave the singer in danger of sounding like Stepford Jewel: ”Life’s a breeze for people like you and me,” she chirps, possibly without irony.
But Jewel still hasn’t figured out what she wants to be; the soul singer on the ”Purple Rain”-like tune ”Haunted” sounds like a different person from the Debbie Harry-style rapper on ”U & Me = Love.” In the end, she offers herself as a work in progress, singing ”I am not yet born.” To which we say, Hurry up.