On Eilen Jewell‘s latest release, Gypsy, she musically wanders all over the Americana map. Sometimes she travels down the Kitty Wells/Loretta Lynn honky-tonk highway. On other songs, she snakes over a more rockabilly beat or a Western movie soundtrack cadence. And there are other sui generis cuts when she does things like use psychedelic steel guitar and fiddle sounds to open a track or sing over a polished brass accompaniment. Drumbeats can propel her forward on one cut and then disappear as she drifts nomadically on the next.
Jewell sings songs of heartbreak and those of joy, of personal obsessions and others of public concerns. The important point is that her roving presence is ever-present. She may be a gypsy, but she’s not lost. Jewell understands the journey itself is the destination of life.
The songs can be seriously funny. Therefore Jewell’s music can easily be misunderstood: is she serious, or is she funny? She is both—but not all the time—which adds to the confusion in a good way. One has to listen beyond the surface pleasures of the music, not just to the lyrics, but to how the instrumentation presents itself as well.
Jewell plays electric guitar for the first time on her recordings. She displays more interest in setting a mood and creating an atmosphere than showing off her chops. Her restraint reveals the depth of mixed emotions the songs convey. What’s not played frequently says more than what is.
And she is funny, sometimes obviously so on such songs as “79 Cents”, subtitled as “The Meow Song”, as she cites President Trump’s infamous zinger about where he grabs a woman. Jewell drolly protests the unequal treatment of women and different racial groups in the workplace and the larger society. Even when Jewell sings “These Blues”, she does so with a smirk and a smile about those who spill wine and talk trash. She expresses her pain while she seduces her partner and wonders about it all. The irony is self-evident and adds to the complexity of the situation as who is really hurting whom becomes less clear as the song goes on. Jewell’s ambiguity is purposeful. She knows there are no simple answers, but that doesn’t mean there are no simple pleasures.
“Like (listening to) the blue jay in the garden if you just stop to hear it,” as Jewell notes in “Witness”. Jewell herself may not have a conventionally beautiful tone. Her voice’s greatest asset lies in its natural plainness. That adds intimacy and a touch of sensuality to the material. And just as with the blue jay, her expressions can be derisive and imitative. It all depends on the song.
Jewell’s description of the “Gypsy” from the title track celebrates flying above it all. She croons about not having one’s feet touch the ground, having no chains, and being free. The implication is that we are chained to the Earth and the ties that bind. Sometimes we even have to “Crawl” to get by, as she notes on the opening track. That’s life. Jewell’s music itself provides a way for us to sonically amble through the daily grind without being weighed down by it. We can all be gypsies for the length of a song, even when lamenting our restricted existence.