Monday, February 18, 2008

The Autobiography of Sheryl Crow

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Sheryl Crow -- Detours (p. Bill Bottrell)

There's a thing in literary criticism (or so I'm told; never touch the stuff, myself) called "The Autobiographical Fallacy." It's the mistaken notion that everything an artist does is directly lifted from his or her life. It discounts things like creativity and imagination. It might cause tooth decay, but the ADA is yet to be heard on the issue.

Sheryl Crow's new album, Detours, is a prime candidate for the Autobiographical Fallacy. Recently, she has battled cancer, broken up with boyfriend Lance Armstrong, crusaded to save the planet (the planet says, "Thanks!"). and apparently watched a little CNN, all of which seem to have filtered into her new batch of songs. But I refuse to commit the Autobiographical Fallacy. No, I will view these songs as imaginative works that could be told from the perspective of any 46-year-old, newly single, cancer-surviving politically active singer-songwriter.

After coming to prominence with odes to lazing around and goofing off like "All I Wanna Do" and later "Soak Up the Sun," Crow has jumped into social awareness with both feet on this album. The opener, "God Bless This Mess," comes on like a Buffy Saint Marie protest song from way back when such things were in vogue. Accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Crow sings of a brother returned from Iraq. Her sadness at the damage he's suffered rapidly turns to outrage that he was sent to war on the basis of lies. The politics might be debatable, but the emotion is genuine and affecting and the unadorned production (by her Tuesday Night Music Club cohort Bill Bottrell) serves her well.

Drum hits like punches signal the beginning of "Shine Over Babylon," and Crow namechecks the false gods of our modern world like "madman oil drillers" and the "brown shirt ranks" and "the bloated bank account." She even anticipates the inevitable "shouts from crazy cranks." If I were inclined to make autobiographical connections, that might be due to her experience last year after her infamous toilet paper crack. But I don't do that.

And so goes the first (and stronger) half of the album. "Love Is Free" dances through the soggy streets of post-Katrina New Orleans. "Peace Be Upon Us" tinges the folk rock with Eastern stylings and voices as it offers up a prayer for a new day. "Gasoline" imagines a future where people have rejected the title fluid. "I got a message and a megaphone," she warns in that last one and it seems as if Detours will be a true protest album for our time. And a good one, at that.

Then the tone changes. With the song "Detours," the album veers off its course into more intimate territory. And at first, it's a welcome sidetrack because "Detours" is one of the loveliest songs Crow has ever penned. Addressed to somebody's mother (maybe hers; can't be sure), she details a bumpy road towards love. "Took all of these detours to find love," she sings, "and when I did it just faded away." Again, the production is muted and allows Crow's emotion to hold the listener, which it does beautifully.

But afterwards, the songs about breaking up (with someone; we can't know for sure with whom) feel a little more rote. After the passion and anger of the first half of the album (and the sheer simple elegance of "Detours"), such material sounds emotionally hollow and cliched. Take "Diamond Ring." for instance, about a lover reluctant to face a commitment. Or "Now That You're Gone," where she claims Kelly Clarkson-like that her lover's departure has allowed her to breathe. Even "Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)" about someone (could be anyone) undergoing radiation treatment for cancer comes off as more than a little obvious and whiny. I respect taking the negatives in one's life and dealing with them through music (if that's what she's doing here), but Crow sounds less inspired by these personal struggles than she is by the world at large.

Still, she has one more gem left. "Lullaby for Wyatt," a song addressed to her son (or someone else who happens to be named "Wyatt" possibly), is another stripped down sweet reverie as singer Crow, with her guitar and soft strings the only instrumentation, puts her son down to sleep and tells him some of the things that cancer patient Crow probably thought about saying to him while she battled her disease. "Love is letting go," she sings and you'd have to be made of stronger stuff than I am to not feel your heart melt.

In the end, her (possibly) autobiographical material isn't quite as strong as her angry protest songs. Detours may have benefitted by staying a little longer on the main highway.

2 1/2 stars

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