Every era gets the singer-songwriter it needs and deserves. When '60s counterculture types sought to chill out in the early '70s, there was James Taylor, just as, the following decade, Tracy Chapman served as an outlet for the Reagan-era disgruntlement of righteous liberals. Now, at a time when we want to believe in things even if it makes little sense to do so such as a well-intentioned President with some pesky faults we have Sheryl Crow, who may well be the Bill Clinton of rock & roll.
The similarities begin with Crow's debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, which was released the same year Clinton was elected. Much like the President, Crow has tailored her career to fit the times, whether that meant singing backup for Michael Jackson in 1986 or recording routine power-ballad pop (on an unreleased 1992 album). On Tuesday Night Music Club she reinvented herself yet again, as a life-in-the-downsized-lane singer-songwriter a more polished, mainstream, and sexy version of mannered sleaze-observer poets like Rickie Lee Jones. This time, the reinvention worked. Despite the suspect makeover, the album was sharp and quirkily produced, with Crow revealing herself as the consummate shuck-and-jive entertainer not unlike the man in the White House.
On her new album, Sheryl Crow, she continues the Clinton connection: She yearns to be all things to all people. In hard-luck stories like ''Sweet Rosalyn'' and ''Oh Marie,'' Crow's an empathetic chronicler of the underbelly of American life call her Tom Waitress. On ''Home,'' a tenderhearted ballad that has the hushed intimacy of a phone call between lovers, she's the lovelorn folkie. On funky boppers like ''A Change'' and ''Superstar,'' she's a boho hipster, singing out of the side of her mouth and ready for a night with the guys at the town's tawdriest pool hall. And in ''Love Is a Good Thing'' and ''Redemption Day,'' she's a finger-pointing moralist, warning us against corrupt politicians and riots in the streets, and touting the ''train that's heading straight to heaven's gate.'' Moralism, in fact, links many of these songs. From the strung-out has-beens in ''A Change'' to the morning-after doubts in ''Home,'' Crow suggests that any and all good times will be followed by personal or political payback. (Indeed, the heretofore untarnished pop star has taken a blow from retail giant Wal-Mart, which refuses to carry the new album because ''Love Is a Good Thing'' contains the lyric ''Watch our children while they kill each other/With a gun they bought at Wal-Mart discount stores.'')
In more self-righteous hands, the results could have been insufferable. Yet Crow, who produced the album herself, and her half dozen co-songwriters (including Tuesday Night Music Club collaborator Bill Bottrell) never forget they're making pop music, and they've concocted a loose, freewheeling yet remarkably robust album that tugs at your heart and feet sometimes within the same tune. The songs chug along, often kick-started by slinky wah-wah guitars, scrappy, bump-in-the-night percussion, and pedal steel guitars that sound even more lonesome than they do in country music. If there's such a thing as a professional lo-fi album, Sheryl Crow is it.
Singing more assuredly (and often louder) than on Tuesday Night Music Club, Crow invests clever lyrics like ''I thought you were singing your heart out to me/Your lips were synching and now I see'' or ''Well, okay, I still get stoned/I'm not the kind of girl you'd take home'' yes, she has more than inhaled with the knowingness of a reformed bad girl. Her bandwagon streak rears its curly head in ''Maybe Angels,'' a cryptic ode to UFOs and government conspiracies that plays like an X-Files theme song. But she's also shrewd enough to tuck the album's two weakest tracks at the very end.
If Crow has a shortcoming, it's her elusiveness. For all her craft, there's still something undefined about her; she's a confessional singer-songwriter who tends to hide behind her characters. Again, this might be a sign of the times. Crow's soul-searching predecessors attracted fans eager to gobble up their every unguarded feeling. But in these more cynical days, that may no longer be the case witness the backlash against neophyte Lisa Loeb in the wake of her heart-on-both-sleeves hit ''Stay.'' Crow doesn't expose that much of herself on Sheryl Crow she's an emotional centrist. But at the very least, she's building a bridge to a lasting career. A-