This '70s Show

Pals at the Institute for Advanced Study, working with a team of renegade SABRmetricians, have developed a model for calculating the top musical act of any given decade. Without going into the intricacies and trade secrets, the math stresses three basic factors: spanning the period; always being good; and ignoring basically modernist virtues like authenticity, originality, and influence. These are fine things; they're just not necessary conditions for pop.

In short, if you stick around without ever sucking, whether you change history or not, it'll turn out you were a genius. For the late-breaking '50s, Elvis cruises. The '60s are a two-horse race, Dylan barely losing out to the Fabs. The '70s are tough: Magisterially brilliant acts like the Clash suffer from lack of presence, so Led Zep sneaks in past P-Funk, and even I don't understand the math on that one. The '80s are uncontested Prince (don't even get me started about how few songs the Fifth Jackson released). The '90s reveal something weird and interesting: Tori Amos, artist of the decade. This requires second or third thoughts, but if you want to argue, you're probably a boy.

Sheryl Crow shows up a minute late. But if we take the span 1993-2002 as a sort of thought experiment, it's apparent the question shouldn't be "Is Sheryl Crow any damn good?" It's "Who'll induct her into the Hall of Fame?" As the capper of the Crow decade, C'mon, C'monis almost perfect—seeming absurdly front-loaded (three great rockers, a one-song lull, and the flawless title ballad) until you hear five more gems on the backside. Only the tragic decision to duet with former employer Don Henley mars the ride. Such grace should be no surprise; starting from a pretty riveting debut, each record has been better than the last, with the exception of the Difficult Second Record. Even that had deep delights, including "If It Makes You Happy," which did more with less than anything this side of "Free Fallin'." Like the greatest pop songs, it offered exaggerated permission to have fun, and dark seeds of melancholy that would bloom in you when the sun went way way down.

Though the rating method seems to make a god of consistency, Crow has swapped engines on the fly. Inside its avowedly tipsy boogie, '93's "All I Wanna Do" cached slick jazz changes; by the time she was jamming with the Dixie Chicks in Central Park she had moved through little blues and big ballads into being the best country singer working in rock, even co-architecting Stevie Nicks's comeback as a witchy-tonk woman. That's where we're at now; if you have a soft spot for Sheryl Crow and think you don't like Nashville, you're in serious denial. Of course, c&w has long been the secret of every heartland-to-Hollywood badass in a snakeskin vest, which at least explains that whole Kid Rock affinity.

If her arc's been an easy motion from strength to strength, that's replicated within the confines of C'mon. There's scarcely a strained moment: no indulgent tracks, no big statements, no irritable grasping after much of anything. From lead single "Soak Up the Sun" down to "Hole in My Pocket," there's a sense that beyond the song itself, each hook and groove, there's not much at stake—that winning is losing but with better weather. "Abilene" borrows a line from Tori, but when the Strange Little Girl wondered, "When you gonna make up your mind?" it began the most freighted query ever: "When you gonna love you as much as I do?" Sheryl (working for the moment with a Dixie Chick, a Heartbreaker, and a Revolution) offers as a follow-up, "When you gonna get out of bed?" Whenever. Is it nice out?

Crow's lack of metaphysical scope explains why she'll always seem trivial compared to any number of acts. Worshiping trailblazers and hardcore individualists is part of our ideological inheritance—how the West was won, and all that. And it's hard to conceive of perfecting the ride down the great highway as a kind of artistic ambition. This is our mistake, not hers. And, in her gracious way, she seems intent on pointing this out. C'monsteadily invokes the '70s, from the lensflare-basted happy-hippie cover pic (the best since Exit Planet Dust) to throwaway mentions of "freebird" and the Clash. One might say the '70s were the decade defined by lack of metaphysical scope; in that way Crow's had a concept career celebrating them. She needs us to think of those years not out of wine-lit remembrance ('70s nostalgia is so '90s, anyway) but because it was the AOR era—when folks who could lay an hour of good songs end to end, without any grand vision, were the kings and queens of the world (okay, that explains the Henley and Nicks affinities, too). Sheryl is the last of the 60-Minute Women, and she never stops pointing at the moment when that meant everything. The opener, "Steve McQueen," understands rock allusion (as opposed to hip-hop sampling) perfectly: She may be name-checking the vacant, relentless leading man who zenithed in the '70s, but the "whoot-whoo" holler makes us think of a different Steve singing "Take the Money and Run," which brings us back around to The Getawayand every other '70s axiom about extended motion and easy appeal, about the joy of getting rich to the sound of cruising down the middle of the road.

 
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