Conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan irked by the glittery antiwar messages emblazoned on Sheryl Crow's T-shirts during TV appearances once called her a ''brain-dead peacenik in sequins.'' And that's before the message-mongering even became a big part of her CDs. In the first half of her sixth studio album, Detours, Crow lays on the cynic-baiting pacifism: She duets with singer Ahmed Al Hirmi, who croons in Arabic on ''Peace Be Upon Us''; on ''Out of Our Heads,'' she tells the ''children of Abraham'' to ''lay down your fears''; and she laments ''a war all based on lies'' in ''God Bless This Mess.''
You know the saying ''Peace begins at home''? Detours is a terrific return to form, largely because Crow has made détente with her ex. No, not Lance Armstrong (more on him later). We mean Bill Bottrell, the producer/co-writer who helped shape her star-making Tuesday Night Music Club in '93, right before their chemistry gave way to a snipe-filled, nearly 15-year fallout. The reconciliation is not so much detour as homecoming, and the duo sound like they're having a ball most of all on those consciousness-raising tracks. Is it wrong if all she wants to do is have some armistice-loving fun?
Many of those songs' touchstones are Vietnam-era. The New Orleans-themed ''Love Is Free'' is the kind of delightful bubblegum-reggae romp every superstar turned out at least once in the '70s. ''Gasoline,'' a futuristic satire about petrol-loving revolutionaries, is so midperiod Stones that you're sure Mick Taylor will turn up in the credits. Bottrell transforms the conceivably preachy ''Out of Our Heads'' into something magical via a sing-along group chorus and timbale-fueled backbeat, much as Phil Spector made potentially pedantic John Lennon protest tunes like ''Instant Karma'' into unassailably great pop singles.
In Detours' subdued second half, though, Crow lays off the social commentary to address her own recent rough patches, with lyrics that grow more absorbing and intimate as Bottrell's eclecticism simmers down. Even a dedication to her new son, ''Lullaby for Wyatt,'' has an unexpected melancholia, as she flashes forward to their ultimate parting (''And this I'll know/Is you were mine/For a time''). The weary ''Make It Go Away'' laments her 2006 bout with breast cancer...and the tabloid breakup with Armstrong that preceded it (''Was love the illness/And disease the cure''). Most rivetingly, she sings herself hoarse while delivering a good lancing to said former fiancé in ''Diamond Ring'' contending that the titular bauble ''f---s up everything.'' And so it turns out, for a few gripping, bitter minutes at least, that this sequined peacenik is willing to give war a chance, too. A
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear a preview of ''Gasoline'' at barnesandnoble.com