Jem – Finally Woken

Fifteen years is a very long time – long enough for pop music to have got a lot less interesting, apparently. This week in 2004 saw Jem appear pretty much out of nowhere with her debut album Finally Woken. But things took a while to get going for her – she didn’t actually manage to enter the charts until early 2005. But the US version of the album appeared almost a year earlier, and despite barely charting (it peaked at number 197) apparently led to a substantial underground following. Having written for Madonna‘s preceding album, she had strong credentials already.

It opens on fine form, with the hit single They, which was a top ten hit the year after the album came out. It has some odd production in places, with the weird child samples and the mandolin section at the first break, but in general, it’s just surprising and unusual enough to stick out, and definitely catchy enough to earn a place in the charts.

Come on Closer also presents some slightly eccentric production, but with this track it flows a lot more smoothly – the childlike verse parts contrast beautifully with the grungy guitars of the chorus. It’s a great song

Title track Finally Woken has a sweet, springlike quality with a trippy beat, but somehow after the first couple of tracks, the production here just feels a bit boring. It isn’t, of course – there’s plenty going on – they just seem a bit shorter of ideas on this track. Ironically, this was the song that broke her, after she dropped a demo off at KCRW.

Save Me is great, with a brilliantly lazy organ part playing in the background, and some dirty guitar work in the foreground. At their best, Jem‘s songs are sonically eccentric and exploratory, and Save Me is definitely a good example of that. Ironically, the songwriting feels secondary – and these are all good songs, but so much thought has been put into designing the production that it’s hard not to focus on that.

Much of the success of this album is owed to Jem taking a leaf out of Moby‘s book, and licensing every track to be used on television and advertising. In the UK, the strategy was a little more traditional, taking the radio and media plugging route, although plenty of the songs made it onto the media as well.

24 marks a transition – there’s still plenty of work been put into the production, and that never really fails throughout the whole album. But it just feels as though it’s starting to get a bit old now – we’re five tracks in now, and the vocals are still hidden behind heavily overproduced backing. If you didn’t like the first few tracks, you’re not going to like this.

So it continues – Missing You is a lovely atmospheric piece, but as always, the vocals are so deep in the mix that it’s difficult to really enjoy the song when it’s hidden so deep under the instrumentation. Similarly, Wish I has a sweet sixties pop feel, that almost works beautifully, but somehow doesn’t quite seem to work in full. It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what the problem is here – maybe it just had its moment fifteen years ago and isn’t quite as relevant any more. Still, I’m a fine one to talk…

The album’s far from over by this stage – second single and significant UK hit Just a Ride follows, and is another of the better moments on here. It’s also another of the four tracks on here lifted directly from Jem‘s debut EP It All Starts Here…, and although the production team is essentially the same, it’s tempting to wonder whether they had lost a bit of momentum when they came to finish the album off. Just a Ride has a slightly more traditional pop production, which serves the song well.

But that’s pretty much it – the trio that close the album, Falling for You, Stay Now, and Flying High, are all perfectly nice, but in this overproduced state it’s apparently difficult to introduce new ideas at such a later state, and somehow any special qualities that the songs might have had get a bit lost in the mix. All fine, and easy to listen to, but difficult to find much to love.

What’s funny, listening to these last few tracks, is that you can imagine each of them playing their part in a dramatic scene of some teen drama, and since that’s how the album was marketed, maybe that’s the angle they were going for. Any one of them could be deeply meaningful to me if I’d seen Temperance making out with Deuteronomy in the closing episode of 90416. I didn’t, unfortunately.

So Finally Woken is a conflicted album in a way – it’s great at the start, and it’s probably fair to say that this would be true whatever the track order would have been. But allowing the songwriting to play a distant second fiddle to the production comes at a cost, namely that a full hour of this kind of thing gets a little tiresome. Or maybe I’d just heard most of it already – working with the same producer who worked on Frou Frou and Björk means that a lot of this had been on the charts for several years already by this stage.

You can still find Finally Woken from all major music retailers.

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