Having satiated her need for pop pastiche and crunchy rock anthems, Sheryl Crow has relaxed, reflected and produced the most mature work of her career.
Wildflower, a collection of mostly string-driven ballads and a few low-key rockers, finds Ms. Crow embracing a softer, but superior sound.
Gone is the reaching, strained sound that typified much of her recent work, particularly 2002's C'mon C'mon. Wildflower pays particular attention to the songs, and not the singer. It's a refreshing change of pace, one that allows Ms. Crow to display one of her greatest assets, her ability to expertly navigate the emotional twists of a well-written pop song.
The album doesn't feature many of the radio-ready singles Ms. Crow has based her career on. Even the rockier numbers, such as Live It Up, seem more natural within the context of the album than as individual works.
An album of unapologetically romantic content, Wildflower will, for obvious reasons, be labeled as a set of songs inspired by Ms. Crow's high-profile romance with cycling champion Lance Armstrong. Though a comfortable relationship might have led her away from darker material, it seems more likely that the album was not inspired by her Lance romance as much as an obvious affection for artists who have traveled a similar path, particularly an All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison and early Elton John.
It's not that she apes these artists' styles, although the intro to Wildflower sounds distinctly Beatle-esque and Always on Your Side wouldn't be out of place on Mr. John's Tumbleweed Connection. Rather, she seems to channel their enthusiasm for making an album a collection of connected songs.
There are still times when Ms. Crow finds a clichd couplet she can't quite divest herself of - allusions to the rain, or love that won't fade away - but now she seems capable of delivering them with earnestness, and, though a dirty word in rock, maturity, that they never become jarring.
Instead, they are delivered with a voice that believes the hackneyed expressions to be true because, perhaps, she has lived them.
Modern, melodic and mature, Wilflower is the sound of an artist at long last coming of age.
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The disc: Sheryl Crow - Wildflower (A&M Records)the verdict: * * * * out of * * * * *