Ramona Gonzalez, also known as Nite Jewel, makes pop music that looks inwards. When she released her 2012 album ‘One Second of Love’, the final product wasn’t quite in line with her own artistic vision – her label, Secretly Canadian, pushed her towards a more straightforward pop direction. It’s a familiar conflict. So in 2016, after leaving the label and creating her own, she put out ‘Liquid Cool’ – a sort of artistic statement, or rather response, which saw her return to the sort of hazy lo-fi production that she was more comfortable with (the album was recorded in her closet). It was an album that was distinctly hers.
Despite this, there were carefully concealed hints of this more ‘direct pop’ that she couldn’t leave behind – the tracks had a clear structure, and hooks that, however restrained, were too evident to miss. Jewel’s music has never been inaccessible, and her DIY approach could never hide those mainstream inspirations that she idolizes. It seems like she is ready to acknowledge that, because on her latest album, she wears those influences on her sleeve, claiming direct Janet Jackson and Aaliyah influences that are actually much more palpable than that promotional phrase makes it seem. She had also cited those influences in interviews as early as her ‘Liquid Cool’ days, but it seems that now, having proven her point, she’s ready to embrace all the elements that define her sound.
On ‘Real High’, Nite Jewel balances honeyed, introspective bedroom pop with luminous 90s R&B. Some of the slower moments on the album work best; a prime example is the lead single ‘Real High’, which is truly ethereal with its wave of synths, backed by subtle drum loops, enveloping Jewel’s hypnotically multi-layered vocals, or the more contemplative ‘R We Talking Long’. Other times the sonic backdrop allows her to expose herself more, resulting in less blissful but equally mesmerizing tracks, like the bass-heavy ‘Part of Me’ or the infectious, more melodic and dynamic ‘Obsession’.
Nite Jewel has built her confidence enough to include more than a handful of more upbeat, danceable R&B tracks. The memorable ‘The Answer’ could easily be a toned-down Chvrches cover, while the hook on the following track ‘I Don’t Know’ is so catchy it could deceive you into thinking it’s cheerful. You probably wouldn’t need much to be convinced that tracks like the highlight ‘Had to Let Me Go’ are Top 40 songs, signifying how effortlessly this side of Jewel presents itself when she’s in control of the music.
Unfortunately, what this album often lacks is at least a bit of punch. Though her blending of subgenres manages to effectively confuse our expectations, the warm, minimalist aesthetic, which she has continuously shown she owns, fails to support an attempt at sunnier, livelier tracks. The annoyingly repetitive synth line on ‘2 Good To Be True’ sounds like something you would forcefully, and quite carelessly, listen to at a barber shop. Which is kind of the point: Jewel has paid a lot of attention to create some tracks that don’t require much attention. If there’s a sunlight that hits you, that high, Jewel’s latest album evokes the comforting feeling of watching the sun going down afterward. But it loses its distinctiveness along the way, avoiding to put itself in the foreground. And, to me, Jewel’s music becomes much more interesting when it gets darker; when the sun has set.
‘Real High’ is out now via Gloriette.