Constant in your Changing

Maybe Sheryl Crow is the consummate artist because she changes so much. I need to know who most of my heroes are. And I don’t know who she is.

And I am a bit embarrassed to cop to how much some of her songs meant to me; how hard I listened to them; how good they are.

Because not all her songs are like those songs I love. Because she’s apparently not still that artist. Because she became a different artist as she lived her life…which is something artists do. So she’s a complete artist in her changing. Writing about her is strangely difficult because of how variable she feels. Ephemeral.

Maybe she’s an artist precisely because I bet you probably don’t think she is.

Perhaps there’s an answer in the songs. You know the ones I’m talking about. Well, at least you know one of them, “All I Wanna Do” — which isn’t one of the songs, at least not for me. It was a charming goof when it showed up on the radio in those halcyon early Clinton days, but that’s about it. The light and meandering quality of her voice (“hippy chick” shows up in every other review) she later attributed to a haze of margaritas, somewhere. And there are some great songs on that disc, “Strong Enough” first among them. Still, not a mighty mighty record, though it gave her the throw weight she’d need to do the next two.

Which were. Mighty. Heavy lifting. The eponymous one that reportedly she needed to do to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke, and that she actually had the hand in making it that her “friends” in the “Tuesday Night Music Club” denied she had. It’s also the first she made without a wolf at her heels. During TNMC she was deep in debt from an exorbitant and shelved first project with Hugh Padgham and needed the publishing dough to get clear of it.

Well, maybe there was a wolf, but it was her own. Fear of not saying what she had to say.

So she sobered up and took all that publishing money and said it. She got great production that anticipated the hunger we had to hear old analog instruments, and piled them high on top of songs with incredible bones and occasionally indelible couplets. She saw her pitch and she swung.

That record saturated the radio (look it up, kids), at least the stations me and my kind were listening to. That one, and The Globe Sessions two years later, consumed me. I kind of couldn’t believe how hard I was listening to the creator of “All I Wanna Do,” but the proof was in the tracks. Wendy Melvoin’s riff that opens “My Favorite Mistake,” and the Charlie Watts hit that kicks it over, were about the baddest-ass thing I could name in 1998, and I’ll own that today. (NB: Melvoin was Wendy of Wendy & Lisa, of course. What could be bad-asser than transcending such an iconic identity and becoming something else.)

Deep in TGS you’ll find all kinds of treasures, thrown together as if from different albums, or even bands. The old weird America in the guitar turn of “Riverwide.” The rave-up of “Am I Getting Through Part II,” which cruelly fades out just as you settle in for the ride. The weird-ass L.A. trip of “There Goes the Neighborhood,” with hardness you wonder how a Mizzou music teacher ever came to know well enough to describe. And the primal pain of “The Difficult Kind,” the strongest hook I think she’s ever written because it seems always to have existed, its slight bridge like a humility square put in to keep it grounded. Oh wait: and “Crash and Burn,” where “I wrote a letter that I never mailed” echoes through corridors of what we can’t read in it.

What could we make of such a record? Critics checked Lucinda Williams and “Exile on Main Street” and Andy Warhol and Ennio Morricone. In other words, they didn’t know what they were talking about anymore than I do now. How to account for this inside job of a record that somehow made it out. (She wrote it mostly on bass, FWIW. Maybe it was free from the root.)

And then, pretty much just like that, she was gone. Or at least that version of her, the one I loved. I snapped up C’mon C’mon a few years later like everybody else but, as Tom Petty said, didn’t hear a single. Or more to the point, they were all singles. “Soak Up the Sun,” an anonymous summer radio thing. “Steve McQueen,” which was hard and exciting but kind of like Lenny Kravitz had become, running through old bits for the kids. (And oh look, there he was on track 3.) The song wasn’t on the Cars soundtrack…but its lookalike was.

What the hell, I thought. Come on come on. I wanted more of what I wanted so bad — but she was done doing that. And has remained good and done, ever since, that I can discern from this remove. I never really went back. What’s she doing now? Country record with Brad Paisley? Duet with Kid Rock? Selling selvedge denim on QVC? Maybe, probably, whatevs.

My dear friend and astute critic Will Layman once noted that as she gets older, her records sound younger. For me she peaked with the cover of “One Less Bell To Answer” on the Bacharach tribute (maybe the oldest thing you can do, lovingly rendering the songs from your parents’ record collection in the console stereo). And then…yeah, he’s kind of right. Maybe this says something grim about the reality of being a woman in the starmaker machinery behind the popular song: if you want to catch the young ears, you gotta stay with them, even if it ain’t you.

But that’s way too easy, just writing it off to identity, and doesn’t give the artist the artist’s due. Because how then to account for the wisdom and the ache of those two records, if it was just a market ploy? The ones I actually bought with money and still keep on my phone and play on the treadmill, turned down a little so the children around me don’t judge?

I hope I’m doing her the ultimate tribute by calling her records what they are: art. Artifice. Constructed personae, crafted soundscapes. That could as easily be this as another, depending on where her hungry ears take her, for all the reasons that an artist wanders.

Sheryl Crow doesn’t owe me another Globe Sessions, any more than Def Leppard owes us all another Pyromania. (Though she’ll still play those songs, twenty years on. As Joe Elliott said, “If you can’t handle the responsibility of a hit single, don’t write one.”)

And artists change their shit up. The title of this post is from how Joni Mitchell sang “A Case of You” live once, and it got recorded. It’s not the “real lyrics.” But it is, because she did it. Because she changed it, because she wanted to. Change. You see.

So let her be a chameleon. Let her be “uneven,” whatever that means. Thank her for what she gave me when she did, and leave it at that. Not everyone has to have lore, a “Classic Albums” episode. Beauty’s where you find it, and that’s enough. I wrote a letter that I never mailed, and here it is.

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