Album of the Week, January 6: The Great Puzzle by Jules Shear

Jules Shear is a gifted songwriter, emotive singer, and innovative guitarist. Despite his great talent, he perhaps best known for Top 40 covers of his work and for conceiving and initially hosting the MTV series Unplugged. A Pittsburgh native, he left the University of Pittsburgh before graduating to pursue a music career in Los Angeles. He recorded one album with the Funky Kings and three with Jules and the Polar Bears between 1976 and 1980 before beginning a quiet solo career. He recorded two albums for EMI — including the songs If She Knew What She Wants, later a hit for the Bangles, and Whispering Your Name, later covered by Alison Moyet — before being dropped. He scored his only Hot 100 hit in 1985 with Steady, a song he co-wrote with Cyndi Lauper. She had taken his lovely All Through the Night to #5 the year before. His next band, Reckless Sleepers, released one album before he returned to solo work.

Title The Great Puzzle
Act Jules Shear
Label Polydor Release Date 1/28/92
Producer Stewart Lerman and Jules Shear
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. The Trap Door
  2. The Great Puzzle
  3. We Were Only Making Love
  4. The Sad Sound of the Wind
  5. Something Else to Me
  6. Make Believe
  7. Much Too Much
  8. Dreams Dissolve In Tears
  9. The Mystery’s All Mine
  10. Jewel In A Cobweb
  11. Bark

After the stark, Unplugged nature of The Third Party, this release is a return to a full band sound and finds Shear at the height of his powers. The 11 original songs reflect his themes of love and loss with a distinctive sound, a tight band, and great lyrics.

Things kick off with The Trap Door, a fitting welcome as the listener is dropped into Shear’s world. It’s a meditation on the perils of the materialistic world and a warning to live a life that contributes to the greater good. Next up is the more upbeat title track. This charming song also reflects on the world at large, but serves more as a promise than a warning. Life is a great puzzle, “but you’ve got to like games.” After these two wide-ranging songs, Shear gets more personal.

We Were Only Making Love is a sad song of miscommunication and a doomed relationship. Bordering on maudlin, it’s saved by sharp lyrics and a plaintive, aching vocal. The sorrow continues with The Sad Sound of the Wind, a song of abandonment. Where the previous track’s lovers were both complicit in their failure, this protagonist is the victim of a callous kiss-off. All he has left is the bitter wind blowing through him.

From that pair, we move to a quirky story song, Something Else to Me. It tells of a former lover who has died, leaving behind a mysterious past, an activist lifestyle, and a trail of broken hearts. A curious mix of espionage, romance, and nostalgia, it’s one of Shear’s best lyrical constructions. He delivers the vocal with just the right mix of sorrow and detached bitterness, vividly evoking the departed former lover. Make Believe is a visceral set of images describing a life based on illusions. It’s a gripping warning tempered by a reluctant sympathy. The pace picks up for Much Too Much, a romp about a woman whose passion is overwhelming. Shear whispers and screams, clearly lost in the grip of her power.

Shear shares vocal duties with his wife, Pal Shazar, on Dreams Dissolve In Tears. This is one of the best songs he’s written, a great narrative song with compelling imagery and biting observations. It tells of another doomed romance, with its early promise washed away through abuse and betrayal. The Mystery’s All Mine is a more personal relationship tale, with the singer exploring a complex, codependent relationship. Jewel In A Cobweb returns to the third person for a similar exploration, in this case the story of a woman trapped by a cad who drains her of life and joy. The final track is a return to Shear’s unplugged sound. Bark is a quiet song of despair. Shear addresses an unknown person, lamenting simply and painfully, “You don’t know how I feel.” Stark and powerful, it’s a compelling wrap-up to an amazing album.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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