Idahoan crafts optimistic melodicism from the hardest of times.
The powerful and ominous sounding ‘Alive’ is the opening track on Eilen Jewell’s 13th long player ‘Get Behind the Wheel’. With its reverbed, Morricone-esque guitar figures and Jewell’s brooding vocals – elegiac yet still overtly provocative – the song is a massive statement of intent. It’s a full-on slow burn that begins hauntingly, almost ruefully as Jewell nigh-on whispers the opening lines “Fill up my glass, I want more, I run on these fumes, accelerator’s floored, You say you wanna kill your thirst, but the flask is cracked, How you ever gonna quench it like that”. As the track builds towards a roaring, ragged crescendo, Jewell tackles themes of addiction, rebirth and identity, becoming more forthright and insistent, more sure of herself and her position in the firmament as she goes. Jerry Miller’s guitar blazes in and out of the yearning melody as Jewell rediscovers her passion and purpose for life, noting in the lyric that provides the album’s title that “You gotta get behind the wheel, You gotta drive” and finally reaching a place where she can be hopeful about the future, where the darkness is tempered by first inklings of light and to the question “Baby how you feel?” she can respond “I feel so alive”.
As opening salvos go this is one of clear and true intent. It sets a tough, uncompromising tone for the record, which doesn’t relent over the course of its 41 minutes. This gives ‘Get Behind The Wheel’ a harder sonic edge than much of Jewell’s previous work. Gone, for the most part, are the folky acoustic strums and keening fiddles of earlier efforts, to be replaced by a noisier rootsier feel that intensifies the emotionality of her compositions. Her bluesy 2017 covers record ‘Down Hearted Blues’ is perhaps the closest forebear of the new LP in both sound and lyrical temperament. What elevates ‘Get Behind the Wheel’ is that we get Jewell’s authentic voice here, and not what was called the “sly” and “naïve” one found on Down Hearted Blues. And what a voice it is, expressing the pain and heartache of the present with the transition, introspection and the burgeoning, joyful hopefulness of what is yet to come.
It is likely that the stronger flavour of this record is the result of the desolate and desperate experiences from which it sprang. There is a significant amount of noise around ‘Get Behind the Wheel’ that foregrounds the difficult personal circumstances faced by Jewell in the lead-up to its creation. Fractured relationships, bereavements of close family and friends and a growing realisation of an unhealthy relationship with drinking among them. The retreat to a solitary mountain cabin has become something of a shibboleth for artists facing periods of discord, uncertainty and self-examination and searching for means of replenishment. All of these feelings have found their way into these songs and the album captures and represents them all, fully red in tooth and claw.
For a record with such impressions of desolation, loss and regret the lasting impression is one of positivity and optimism. Jewell herself has suggested that there’s “a lot of hope and love and redemption” to be found on ‘Get Behind the Wheel’. This is evident in the generally upbeat nature of the music to be found here. In particular the more directly country-tinged numbers are buoyant and impeccably melodic, with dynamic and open-hearted arrangements that really draw the listener in. Even when she is singing unflinchingly of the challenges she faces – “I came down here to get better, but it just keeps getting harder all the time” (‘Crooked River’) – Jewell’s voice remains pure, clear and beautifully tuneful. In this way we are always brought back to how the record sees Jewell both metaphorically and literally taking control of her life and the direction in which she wants it to go, realising that “I’ve only got this one life, and I’d better get behind the wheel if I want to make the most of it.”
Over nearly 20 years of recording Eilen Jewell has quietly amassed a catalogue that is as consistent and concise a representation of country-tinged roots music as you could wish to find. So far this year has seen fabulous records by female artists and songwriters operating in a similar arena; Laura Cantrell, Angela Perley, Jill Barber, Kassi Valazza, Rachel Baiman, Charlotte Cornfield, Mya Byrne, Sarah Petite and the Watson Twins. ‘Get Behind the Wheel’ stands with any of these and is worthy of any one’s hard-earned time and money.