As Jewel continually reminds us on her second album, Spirit, Earth is the ultimate house of horrors. It pollutes and poisons our minds, it's populated by bigots and bullies, and it constantly tramples and suppresses our inner beauty. But if we have faith in ourselves and join together, she keeps suggesting, we shall once again overcome and reclaim the purity and essence of life. Really.
Over the past couple decades, musicians who extolled such sentiments were folkie moralists who disregarded materialism and commerciality; they looked and sounded drab. None of those stereotypes apply to Jewel Kilcher, who epitomizes a new breed of contemporary folksinger. She's become her own cottage industry and what a crowded bungalow it is. Part unplugged balladeer, part multi-platinum pop star, part best-selling poet, part sex symbol, part fledgling movie actress (with a feature-film debut due this spring), she's the '90s face of social consciousness: glamorous, careerist, unabashedly ambitious.
Despite a few memorable moments, like the poignantly descriptive lament ''You Were Meant for Me,'' Pieces of You, her '95 debut, was dominated by wan, precious coffeehouse sermons. Spirit, carefully produced by longtime Madonna cohort Patrick Leonard, represents a major leap in high fidelity. Leonard keeps the focus on Jewel's voice while adding just enough Nutra-folk sweetener pillow-soft keyboards, softly padding drums to avoid the drabness of Pieces of You. ''Hands,'' the first single, epitomizes how Leonard achieves a smart balance between acoustic intimacy and radio-friendly gloss. The way Jewel's voice dips from a mountain-stream soprano to a vulnerable lower octave in the chorus demonstrates what a stronger, more confident singer she's become, and how much vocal control she's learned. On the printed page, this ode to keeping the faith makes as much sense as Jewel acting (''My hands are small, I know/But they're not yours, they are my own'' huh?). But Jewel sounds as if she believes deeply and strongly in every last syllable.
If Spirit were intended simply as an easy-listening folk-pop balm which it often winds up being, in lullabies like the self-help ditty ''Deep Water'' and the enraptured love song ''Kiss the Flame'' it would suffice. It's certainly a more pleasing aural experience than the grating cacophony that is the new Alanis Morissette album. But in her role as friend, advisor, lover, and spiritual counselor, Jewel yearns to elevate us and, in doing so, continually trips herself up.
Jewel is, first off, a jumble of contradictions. She's clearly driven, yet in ''Down So Long'' (the closest thing to an upbeat number, with a classic-rock feel reminiscent of Tom Petty's ''Mary Jane's Last Dance'') she complains of her hectic schedule. ''Do You,'' a tract against the superficiality of the world, finds her admonishing certain women ''No more pigtails and pony rides/ They're sophisticated/They sip on lattes'' who resemble none other than fans of Jewel and her Lilith Fair peers.
As that song reveals, there's an ultrathin line between simplicity and naivete, and Jewel keeps leaping back and forth over it. She's given to embarrassing and vague platitudes, as in ''Hands'' (''If I could tell the world just one thing/It would be that we're all OK'') or the entirety of ''Life Uncommon,'' perhaps the least rousing protest song ever performed. Only the most faithful fans won't giggle at ''Fat Boy,'' an agonizingly syrupy ode to an overweight boy sung like a number from a campfire-girl theater group. It's fine for Jewel to come to the aid of the underdogs but she belies her sensitivity by mocking a ''fat man'' in ''Down So Long.''
A less urgent but still irksome problem is that Jewel, despite being a published author, is often in dire need of an editor. Her songwriting can be almost shockingly sloppy. The not terribly original phrase ''fragile flame'' crops up in two different songs, as does the metaphor of the heart as an empty room. And never mind the incessant use of sun-sky-wind-water imagery, which threatens to turn her into the John Denver of the next century.
To the Jewel devout, none of these gripes will matter. With her dulcet voice and lulling refrains, Jewel makes the social and political ills of the world go down easy. But in doing so, she unintentionally confounds the problem, since her honeyed background-music folk makes issues of life and death appear more benign and less worrisome than they are. Jewel truly has brought topical folk songs into the modern age: She makes complacent rabble-rousers. B-