Life has been hard for singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell. There was the pandemic. She ended up divorced. Her creative inspirations seemed to disappear, so she retreated to a remote existence in the mountains. Jewell contemplated and reflected on her situation, found inner resources, and emerged renewed. She’s back on the road touring to promote her latest release, Get Behind the Wheel. As the title suggests, Jewell’s ready to roll ahead.
At least that’s the back story about Jewell and her ninth studio release. But the songs on Get Behind the Wheel offer a different portrait. The protagonists of these 11 tracks are still hurting. Even when the messages are upbeat, their silver linings are filled with dark clouds. She ain’t going nowhere, as Bob Dylan would say.
Jewell repeatedly imparts her desire to move, but she seems more like a traveler stunned by a traffic accident than a voyager making headway down the highway. Consider the first-person narrator of “Lethal Love”. Jewell sings, “No one here who runs from here makes it out alive”, with Jim Morrison-like aplomb. This relationship isn’t that of ordinary fun and games. It’s more akin to Russian roulette. She escapes loneliness only to be caught in the quicksand of another.
When Jewell’s on the road, as in the ballad “Winnemucca”, she’s more likely to be waiting by the highway sign than getting where she wants to go. Life can be hard with a cold wind blowing and holes in her clothes. Things will be better when she gets to the Nevada city and has boxed wine, a good trailer, and a lover. She may not desire much, but that seems temporarily out of reach. The road is a harsh mistress.
There is something very outdoorsy about the music, a sense of the Western outdoors with a big sky and empty landscapes. Jewell co-produced the album with Will Kimbrough (Todd Snider, Hayes Carll, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell). They put Jewell’s stoney voice front and center. Her affectless singing conveys a stoic sense of beauty. Her pain is buried so deep that the smallest inflection communicates heavy feelings. Meanwhile, the instrumentation could serve as the soundtrack to a cowboy movie from the fifties.
In many ways, the happiest track on Get Behind the Wheel is “Breakaway”, a Jackie DeShannon classic previously recorded by Irma Thomas and Tracey Ullman. The singer boasts that she is so in love that it’s impossible for her to leave her no-good boyfriend. Jewell may want to drive on, but she can’t escape due to her limitations. She celebrates her desires even when it holds her back.
Get Behind the Wheel closes with “The Bitter End”, a dark meditation on how to live one’s life. The singer croons about recovery while it is still possible to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes of existence. The bitter end is the place from where one has to start. “You have to break before you bend,” Jewell chastises. In this respect, the album is hopeful. The singer implies that one has to be stuck before one can be truly free. She feels trapped, making her ready to be liberated.