In pop music, 15 years is a lifetime-plus. Artists who release relevant music over than span of time are few, particularly in the last 15 years.
In that time, Sheryl Crow has forged something even more rare than “mere” success. She has combined craft, surface, and substance to become a hitmaker who seems both old and new. This was obvious when she first emerged as a Ricki Lee Jonesy former Michael Jackson back-up singer with the radio hit “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun”. That song felt light and loose and new, but it also seemed instantly classic, with the stamp of the ‘70s singer-songwriter tradition on its forehead.
In subsequent records, Crow simply deepened her rock credibility. The follow-up Sheryl Crow (1996) rocked harder and darker, yet it also sounded more contemporary, with a plenty of weird blips and loops to scuff up the surface. The Globe Sessions (1998) was a more stripped down effort but still contained what had plainly become Crow’s best attribute: classic, hooky songwriting. Crow’s lyrics were laced with surprising cultural references, and her melodies managed to echo “classic rock” without seeming like a retread. At the same time, Crow’s voice settled in as a pop-rock marvel: pretty and rough, expressive but also capable of reaching for a radio-ready climax.
If C’mon, C’mon (2002) seemed to tail off in originality, then it still produced hits (“Soak Up the Sun”) and showed a determined professionalism. Wildflower (2005) found Crow as tabloid fodder—engaged to cyclist Lance Armstrong and then fighting breast cancer—and still she sounded like the only pop diva of substance in a world of freeze-dried American Idols and dance-pop plasticity. It was difficult, at times, to decide if Crow—even at age 43 trading on her striking beauty—was being tarted-up for the youth market. But this was the mark of Crow, wasn’t it? She was neither a roots rocker nor a pop songstress. She’d found a way to play the middle ground—neither too gritty nor too slick. And always well-crafted.
The brand-new Sheryl Crow album is called Detours, but it is hardly a strange left turn. The producer of Tuesday Night Music Club, Bill Bottrell, is back. As on that debut disc, there is a rich array of rock and pop-styled tunes that are written with craft, arranged with a loose perfection, and sung with a perfect sense of gorgeous authenticity. It is now clearer than ever that Sheryl Crow owns a versatile talent that is in the game for the long haul. Forget the romances with Armstrong and Eric Clapton. Sheryl Crow is a major talent with just her guitars and her voice. Her songs don’t just sound “classic”—15 years into a hugely consistent career that word defines the artist herself.
With Bottrell back as producer, Crow is given latitude to vary her sound dramatically on different songs. And so the disc starts with the personal-turns-political “God Bless This Mess”, recorded low-fi with just guitar and voice. Crow takes her listener from a childhood home to a first job making cold calls to the chaos of 9/11. t’s an affecting narrative signaling that Detours will be the singer’s most outspoken and most introspective collection.
And so it is. This is plainly a political record, containing songs critical of the government, songs lamenting petroleum dependency, and songs advocating green activism. At the same time, Crow has never seemed so much like a personal singer-songwriter, plainly addressing her cancer treatment on “Make It Go Away (Radiation Song” and somewhat uncomfortably suggesting how a “Diamond Ring” ruined her relationship with Armstrong. Frankly, these both seem like potential missteps… until you have heard Detours.
In execution, Crow blends her politics and her confessionals with both good storytelling and superior popcraft. “Love is Free” starts with “She got a shack / Floating down the Pontchartrain / With the water rolling in you gotta swim / Before the levees start to crack”—plainly a song about the absurdities of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. But it’s not that simple. The music, after all, is invincibly snappy, based around a thrilling guitar strum and a set of bitten-off phrases sung in Crow’s jazziest tone. The chorus is not about resignation but about a kind of gleeful release: “Oh, everybody / Devil take your money / Money’s got no hold on me / Oh oh everybody’s making love / ‘Cause love is free”. Tightly harmonized and supplemented with growling baritone saxophone riffing on the out-choruses, this is a “political song” that is actually more of a catchy story that includes the serious sentiment that “It ain’t no big thing if you lose your faith / They kinda like to keep you in your place” and revels in the rhyme “With the voodoo / What do you do?” Resisting it is like turning down some cheese on your broccoli.
“Gasoline” is angrier and more distinctive too. On the surface, it’s a plain old protest song, concluding that “You got the bastards in Washington / Afraid of popping the greed vein / ‘Cause the money’s in the pipeline / And the pipeline’s running dry”. But the story that unfolds is a strange dystopian tale told from the future, looking back on “the year of 2017 / ... The summer of the riots [when] / London sat in sweltering heat / And the gangs of Mini Coopers / Took the battle to the streets”. Cars and trucks are outlawed and one final can of gas is used to blow up the Taj Mahal—all set to a Stones-y groove established by messy drums, stinging guitar, and Wurlitzer electric piano. Crow talk-sings like a hipster quasi-Dylan with a penchant for a tuneful shout-along chorus.
The title track shows Crow’s facility with a largely acoustic folk song—something that Alison Krauss would put across beautifully but with less canny pop directness. “Lullaby for Wyatt” is an honest-to-goodness acoustic ballad for Crow’s adopted son, as lovely a way to close the album as you can imagine, a tune that contains more than one surprising melodic turn. The album contains a pu-pu platter of mid-tempo tracks that lock into your ear for an inevitable ride. “Shine Over Babylon” pulses with Big Drums and rises to a chorus roughly the size of the Great Plains. “Peace Be Upon Us” layers percussion into a electronic groove then invites Iranian singer Mitra Rahbar to duet with Crow on lyrics that draw on religious themes. “Now That You’re Gone” is an R&B song that sounds like it came out of Detroit or Philly in another era. All of these tunes prism Crow’s full-voiced aesthetic along different wavelengths. The spectrum make this the most fully realized album by the singer in a decade.
There remain missteps that result from such catholic aspirations. “Love Is All There Is” starts with electronic drums and hops its way into a kind of ABBA groove. “Diamond Ring” is spare and echoey on the verse then moves into a sonic cathedral on the chorus without providing Crow’s usual knack for a perfect pre-chorus, then adds a bridge section where the vocal rasps uncomfortably about diamonds “bringing on cold feet”. It’s additionally true that the second half of the album goes about half-flat compared the opening set of wholly arresting songs.
But so what? Detours is so good that even the middling songs are chock full of taste treats. “Motivation” is a late gem that snaps and grooves on a stacked-vocal chorus and a set of lyrical references that crack you up: “Skinny young dude in a hundred dollar t-shirt / ... Hotties doing pilates with the Saudis and the pleasers”. The truth—hidden maybe behind all of Crow’s records sales and her good looks and her relatively mainstream radio success—is that Sheryl Crow is a literate rock star, a singer-songwriter who just happens to appeal, an authentic talent who isn’t above (or below?) being sold, even on the radio, to teens and adults alike.
In short, Sheryl Crow a middle-of-the-road success who happens to be better than we all realized. With Detours, she keeps her plowing down the highway, foot on the pedal moving easily from lane to lane, the radio on full-blast. And there doesn’t seem to be any stopping her.
// Notes from the Road
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