Sheryl Crow was drunk during the recording of most of her debut Tuesday Night Music Club. The album (the title of which was inspired by the weekly jam sessions that ultimately produced the disc’s rootsy, beer-logged songs) was in stark contrast to Crow’s pointedly self-titled follow-up. Released in 1996, Sheryl Crow sounded right at home next to other post-grunge, postmodern (and seemingly post-everything) albums like Beck’s Odelay and Ani DiFranco’s Dilate. The mid-‘90s was a sort of wasteland for alternative pop of this kind (the standard was to mix ordinary pop songwriting with samples, hip-hop beats and electronic effects), which produced an endless list of one-hit wonders not unlike the similar synth-driven boom of the ‘80s. But Crow, like Beck, found that rare balance between retro, organic rock and slick, glam-pop on her sophomore effort.
Crow’s voice sounds more assured when she’s sober. The critically-hailed singer took full-reign of the production duties, partially in response to suggestions that she was a mere puppet to her all-male Tuesday Night Music Club. As such, there’s a palpable, fear-driven ambition to the album. Her drive paid off and not only did Crow avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, but Sheryl Crow is easily her greatest achievement. The album’s lead single, the crunchy rocker “If It Makes You Happy,” was both a retort to the criticism she received as well as a fatigued reflection on two years of fame and touring (which included a stint at Woodstock ‘94, specifically referenced here). While the structure of the single is fairly straightforward, other tracks are filled with quirky, stream-of-conscious lyrics (pop-culture references abound: to Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Ouija boards, etc.) and a collage of drum loops, organs, and layered voices. Songs like “Ordinary Morning,” with its lazy piano figures and raw blues vibe, are cushioned comfortably next to loopy tracks like “Maybe Angels” and understated folk ballads like “Home,” in which Crow recounts the emotional strains of a deteriorating marriage.
As always, Crow’s lyrics take a decidedly moralistic stance but never sound preachy. “Hard to Make a Stand” touches on abortion clinic terrorism while “Love Is a Good Thing” sees the solution to the world’s problems in the same four-letter word so many other rockers have enthusiastically endorsed over the years. Crow makes subtle references to the Beatles’ “Love Is All You Need,” but not before giving us a dose of modern reality: “Watch our children while they kill each other/With a gun they bought at Walmart discount stores.” This is certainly not the same hippie mentality of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and one can’t help but think that Crow is a tad less confident with her miracle product than, say, Lennon ever was. “These are the days when anything goes,” she sings on the buoyant “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” and the sentiment speaks for both the song’s playful optimism and the album’s sonic adventurousness. Crow has had some other great moments (“Leaving Las Vegas,” “My Favorite Mistake”), but none of her other full-length albums have been as consistent, immaculately produced or distinctly modern.