Johnny Jewel Gets ‘Windswept’ by the Strong Force of David Lynch

Johnny Jewel’s recently released Windswept album, featuring solo score cues plus work by his acts Symmetry, Chromatics, and Desire, arrived somewhat out of nowhere with nevertheless heavy expectations. A portion of the songs will be in the Twin Peaks revival season, debuting tonight on Showtime. It also comes after news that we’ve waited so long for Chromatics’ Dear Tommy because Jewel trashed the first iteration and re-recorded it.

Jewel tossed out Tommy following a near-death experience while in Hawai’i with his family in the Christmas of 2015, according to a series of tweets by his manager, Alexis Rivera. He destroyed Tommy and started over. I’ve seen social media comments from people who think this is weird, nuts, or misguided, but I fully understand it.

If you’re so invested in a project — if you’re putting your all into it — there’s a good chance that you experience self-doubt and bouts of perfectionism. Add an experience in which you almost die, and why the fuck wouldn’t you do a little reassessing of things? I’ve experienced both of those things, though not concurrently. (I slipped and fell on a busy street in South Korea and my head was about two feet away from a car’s tire before the vehicle stopped. I didn’t have enough of an epiphany following that, but that’s a story for another time.)

Specifically, focusing on the project part, is something related to Jewel from last year. It wasn’t just interview-scheduling that led to my taking nine months to write the big feature on the fifth anniversary of Drive, a story in which an interview with Jewel plays a crucial role. I wrote four versions of the thing, one as long as 3,000 words, completely deleting each preceding edition and starting over. If I wasn’t going to write the perfect piece, then I shouldn’t be writing at all, I thought. The 7,269-word opus ended up turning out all right, though it’s probably still not perfect.

See where I’m going with this? Even if Jewel hadn’t almost died in Hawai’i, I’d fully expect him to do what he did with Tommy. For starters, that album’s predecessor, 2012’s Kill For Love, went through several rounds of destroyed versions before becoming the album I consider a key part of my existence.

There’s also this to consider: There’s a lot riding on Tommy to be amazing, especially after the long wait and taking into account the quality of Kill For Love. And — setting aside the expectations of fans and the music press — if it doesn’t live up to Jewel’s own strict standards, then he has a right to trash it and start over. Billy Corgan is known for his perfectionism, and Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness are better off for it (though perhaps this analogy doesn’t stretch beyond 1998). So, too, Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds. He heard the sounds and they needed to be what they were supposed to be. Nothing less.

Johnny Jewel. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better

Even though Jewel released Windswept not very many days after announcing its existence, in full contradiction to the Tommy situation, it’s in some ways the release I’ve been waiting for more than Tommy. He seems freer, whether on the dreamy, almost ethereal jazz cues that ostensibly will be in Twin Peaks — they speak the Badalamentian tongue — or on the solo cues or the work with some of the Italians acts he helms, whether he’s joined by Ruth Radelet, Adam Miller, and Nat Walker of Chromatics; Meg Louise and Walker of Desire, or Walker in his capacity as Jewel’s other in Symmetry. This is a man liberated from the expectation of Tommy and who is free to craft soul-connecting experiences without strict dance, pop, or rock sensibilities. 

Take “The Flame,” embedded above. It has the haunting dreaminess that has become Jewel’s signature in the past several years, regardless of which act, augmented by a soulful alto saxophone and a wispy sense of enchantment. I can hear this as a part of Twin Peaks; there’s enough of that vibe. But I also hear someone free to experiment a little, getting outside the expectation of dark disco or synthpop or Drive. It’s like David Lynch has reinvigorated Jewel by bringing the LA-based producer into his sphere.

“Saturday” is a Desire track, the first in a few years, and it’s fantastic. Replacing Desire’s typically tight disco/synthpop expressions, such as “Under Your Spell” from Drive, “Don’t Call” from debut LP II, or “Tears from Heaven” from 2013’s After Dark 2 comp, is a dream-pop cut loaded with cinematic strings, synthy, atmospheric undertones, and a driving, acoustic-infused rhythm section that in another life Ricky Nelson would be all over. What’s still there, though, are Louise’s comforting vocals. It’s nice to have her back.

“The Crimson Kiss,” replete with washy jazz drums, dark, minor-chord synth strings, and a prominent vibraphone, is one of the most Angelo Badalamenti-sounding cuts on Windswept. If it doesn’t show up in Twin Peaks, that would be a shame. I think Jewel serves the show’s legacy proudly with this cool-cat number. The title track is similar in its genuflection toward its inspiration, complete with a healthy dose of soulful sax. I could see him adapting either for Julee Cruise.

“Missing Pages” is a bit more of the “classic” synth score work we’ve come to expect from Jewel since he started dabbling in this stuff years ago. Bright synths with a slight bit of sticky fuzz dance slowly like a Vangelis expression from Blade Runner, as dark soundscapes and ominous harbingers of inquiry step up to make it all a rather complex conversation. I could see this as a cue in Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s 2015 film that Jewel scored.

Speaking of Lost River, this album also features Chromatics covering Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s 1934 classic “Blue Moon.” For Windswept, though, Jewel fleshes it out, making it jazzier, while also more comprehensively cinematic with symphonic strings and a beautifully consistent xylophone. Radelet’s soulful, low-register vocals pair well, lulling the listener into a sense of acceptance that the album is over.

Those are just a few songs from the 14-cut release. Perhaps because of the Twin Peaks work, Windswept is overall quite a different release for Jewel. The inspiration of composers and bands like John Carpenter, Goblin, Tangerine Dream, Cliff Martinez, and Atticus Ross that would show up in his previous work are diminished in favor of a Lynchian dreamscape best suited for rouged-up, smoke-filled, noir-parlors like The Bang Bang Bar (or even the Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, New York). This isn’t to say this album is derivative, though.

Overall, it’s a rewarding album to experience. I look forward to more of his experimentation with different soundscapes and styles. And to bring it all back to the will he/won’t he surrounding Dear Tommy: If it means he keeps making music like this, he can withhold Tommy from us for as long as he wants. Be free, Johnny. Be free.

Buy Windswept digitally for one whole dollar from Italians. (I haven’t heard yet when the vinyl version will be released.) You can watch Twin Peaks on Showtime tonight and the next several Sunday nights. Watch for Chromatics to show up performing “Shadow.”

Chromatics performing at the after-party of the May 19 premiere of the return of ‘Twin Peaks.’ Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.
%d bloggers like this: