If the liner notes photos for Wildflower are to be believed, Sheryl Crow and Jennifer Aniston are slowly merging into one person, and if the album’s production is any indication, Crow is slowly merging with acts like The Dixie Chicks and Keith Urban, who’ve found a comfortable crossover appeal in their brand of rootsy, pop-inflected country. If not the most obvious path for Crow’s career to have taken—at least not up until her cover of Cat Stevens’s “The First Cut Is The Deepest,” anyway—it’s a trajectory that suits her well. After all, her two strongest albums, Sheryl Crow and The Globe Sessions, positioned her as a more readily accessible, mainstream version of Lucinda Williams—lacking Williams’s consistency in using working class imagery to evoke profound personal insights but compensating for that limitation by not singing as though she has a permanent sinus infection. Artistically and commercially, it’s a nice little niche Crow has carved out for herself.
But Crow is at her best when she leaves some degree of edge to her work, like the bite in her voice when she sings the word “makes” in that first a capella hook of “If It Makes You Happy,” or the reverb left in the rhythm line of “My Favorite Mistake.” The problem with Wildflower is that its production smoothes away any such edges, so the songs lack the punch of their predecessors, even when Crow’s lyrics remain strong. On “Live It Up,” for instance, she rhymes “inherently self-conscious” with “resting on your haunches” as a nice reminder of what a first-rate songwriter she is, which makes the likely single’s MOR production all the more disappointing. But for the lyrical content, it could easily be mistaken for an offering from the Anna Nalick/Toby Lightman/Michelle Branch trifecta of singer-songwriters who are hard-pressed to justify their record deals.
This isn’t a problem that Crow has encountered before, and there’s a question of whether the decision to push so specifically for a “crossover” sound—the video for lead single “Good Is Good” is in rotation on CMT, in addition to VH1—has stripped Crow of her distinct sound. There’s not a thing about Wildflower that’s the least bit wild. Still, Crow remains a strong writer and singer, to the extent that Wildflower earns more than just a passing recommendation. She’s written many of these songs better before (“Letter To God” rehashes Sheryl Crow‘s “Redemption Day”), but with an undercurrent of regret running through each track, she’s using those songs to tell a unified story without any real diversions. Crow typically does “melancholy” with panache, so more’s the pity that Wildflower often sounds outright dull.