Though her track record as an album artist isn’t as unblemished as some, including the Recording Academy, would have us believe (though not bad, The Globe Sessions was a disappointment following its self-titled predecessor, and C’mon C’mon was MOR pap at its most painful), Sheryl Crow remains a consistently impressive singles artist. From her charmingly belligerent debut, “Leaving Las Vegas,” to 2005’s lush, quietly contemplative “Good Is Good,” Crow hasn’t released a lead single I haven’t loved. That streak, it seems, would be broken by the singer-songwriter’s hippy anthem “Love Is Free,” which chugs along like a well-oiled parade float but is a little too cute-n’-bouncy for its source material (the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina), if not for a technicality: The single was preceded by the airplay-only “Shine Over Babylon,” a more sobering take on current events that is sonically closer to “If It Makes You Happy” than “Soak Up the Sun.”
What both songs have in common, however, is a roots-rock foundation and musical palette that harks back to Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club, an obviously decided move given that Detours reunites Crow with producer Bill Bottrell for the first time since her debut. The reunion was well worth the 15-year wait, as many of the songs on Detours rank among Crow’s best. Bottrell’s playful guitar melody dances beneath and between Crow’s lead vocal on the sweet “Drunk with the Thought of You,” while the tight, multi-part harmonies of the title track hint at the country record Crow has threatened to make. There’s a grittiness to the music and a scratchy, lived-in quality to Crow’s vocals that’s been missing from her last couple of albums, and the rough edges are becoming.
References to the current political climate inform the first half of Detours, with barbed jabs at the Bush administration both obvious (“The president spoke words of comfort with teardrops in his eyes/Then he led us as a nation into a war based on lies,” Crow snaps on the opening song, “God Bless This Mess”) and slightly more veiled (“Freedoms etched on sacred pillars…Can lead to madman oil drillers,” she sings on “Babylon”). Crow imagines a not-so-distant future where dissent is commonplace and gasoline is free (“Gasoline”) and she makes it known how she feels about our nation’s privileged slackers (“Motivation”). But “Out of Our Heads” is the record’s keynote address, a thumping rally cry with a fervent vocal, a singsong choir chorus, and a message of hope that’s genuine and affecting; the anthemic song would be a good fit for the Obama campaign.
On their own, the political songs would render Detours Important, but Crow has managed the nearly impossible: recording an album that’s as intensely personal as it is fiercely political. If love resulted in Wildflower, her most extraordinarily beautiful—and extraordinarily slept-on—album, then credit the dissolution of that love for what could be Crow’s most heartbreakingly personal work to date. Her break-up with Lance Armstrong shades much of the album’s second, even stronger half, most overtly on “Diamond Ring,” which gives listeners a startlingly frank glimpse into the couple’s unraveling: “I blew up our love nest/By making one little request.” Then, at song’s end, she admits plainly: “Diamond ring fucks up everything.” “Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)” paints a portrait of a woman taking stock of her life while laying on a table and awaiting radiation treatment, with the specter of Madam Butterfly—a character who unknowingly, tragically entered into an impermanent union—overseeing the procedure. “Was love the illness, and disease the cure?” Crow asks. That her connection to Armstrong deepened and expanded upon learning she had breast cancer shortly after they split only deepened and expanded the scope, honesty, and profundity of her work.