Sheryl Crow has almost always been better than she has been given credit for in some music listening circles. The listeners can’t really be blamed for dismissing her outright. Her 1993 hit, “All I Wanna Do”, was ubiquitous and unsatisfying, relying on too light of a sound to have an impact on anything besides strictly top 40 radio. Three years after Tuesday Night Music Club, A&M set about milking “If It Makes You Happy” to death. Arguably one of the weakest tracks on Crow’s self-titled second release, it’s practically a symbol of a battle between pop radio and discriminatory music listeners: overplay anything and you may get an extra several thousand in sales from the average buyer, and then you will be ignored by the self-proclaimed music listening elite. It’s not fair, or maybe it is. Sheryl Crow gets tens of thousands of fans, and the money, and the adoration of stalwarts such as Lucinda Williams. The elite get another name to throw into the lump alongside Celine Dion and whomever else. It’s nice to have a dividing line. Finding one’s own camp can be liberating.
Except, Sheryl Crow is a great record. Toying with sound, singing about misfits, dark and self-deprecating, Crow made her masterpiece. She threw Kurt Cobain’s name into a song long before Laura Veirs, made love seem like something always paranoid and obsessive, and insisted on weird angles in her melodies. Listening to the record, it sounds as if it were recorded in the pit of a subway tunnel with the lights off. 1998’s The Globe Sessions had a couple of weak moments but still continued to show off Crow’s talents, particularly her ability to character-inhabit a song. She mastered writing four-minute anthems that never had to rely on melodrama for weight. 2002’s C’mon, C’mon found her making a summer record. Good for car-windows-down driving and hot barbeques, the willfully pop release was still solid and fun, even as it felt like a step back for the artist.
Unfortunately, the release of her latest, Wildflower, finds her following that downhill trajectory. It’s as if she’s decided to live up to her (bad) reputation. Bland, slick, and endlessly commercial, the new record will be a disappointment to those who were (no doubt secretly) hoping she would storm the world and prove her relative kick-ass-iveness.
Where Wildflower fails is in almost everything. Her lyrics, once specific enough to be unafraid of the fleetingness of pop culture (and therefore adding strength to her stories), are generic to the point of boredom (sample titles: “Live it Up”, “Lifetimes”, “Good is Good”). Her singing has grown odd: she frequently avoids vocally closing the line, sounding as if she’s trying not to move too much, therefore actually enunciating a hard consonant is impossible. The production is all big-money bets. It’s actually a little nauseating how geared toward hit-after-hit it is, and how often pop radio avoids the interesting details in music. “We were apes / Before we spoke of sin / The cosmos sits / On the tip of a pin” Crow sings on “Chances Are” and all one can do is ask, “Why, Sheryl, why?”
Before this is completely trashed, there is something important to point out. Sheryl Crow does have the ability to write an excellent melody. No matter the poor lyrics nor the lame production, she never dips into ground covered by other “commercial” singers (as in, singers whose songs already sound like they were meant for an advertisement). Wildflower, as weak as it is, is still strong from that perspective. But Crow’s natural ability to write a decent pop song has been overshadowed by (hers? A&Ms?) the need to appeal to as broad a base as possible. It’s known that the music moguls for singles pick the most simplistic of songs on any record. Wildflower is a collection of those. There’s no bite. This isn’t necessarily a cheery record. It’s just the musical equivalent of a white t-shirt. Bland, forgettable, unable of sparking excitement. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s a world where breathing has become risk-taking so safety becomes attractive (yes, stretching it here). Regardless, Sheryl Crow has better in her. It won’t kill a listener to hear Wildflower, but then again, neither will that Titanic theme.