Though it’s easy to file Sheryl Crow in the moth-eaten corner of your mind where hazy memories of 1990s chart botherers reside, it turns out that the multi-faceted Missourian has coaxed her solo success to relatively consistent levels for more than 20 years. Eight LPs, all of which were Billboard Top 10 hits; a mantelpiece full of industry awards; a clutch of well-received acting roles. Who knew? All the same, her exploits since the runaway success of 1998 album The Globe Sessions have never quite jived internationally, 2002 single Soak Up The Sun notwithstanding.
There's never been any question about Sheryl Crow's abilities as a singer/songwriter. But what's often overlooked is her savvy knowledge of who her audience is. Her early work was catchy enough to top the pop charts, but still had enough edge and sexiness to be a guilty pleasure for alt-country snobs — it's hard to argue against the near-perfect execution of "If It Makes You Happy." Those fans have aged, along with Crow, who should also be given props for surviving both breast cancer and a disastrous relationship with Lance Armstrong.
Sheryl Crow is nothing if not versatile: A former Michael Jackson backup singer who mixes pop, country, R&B and classic rock, she's built a career as an outspoken singer-songwriter and a Grammy-friendly go-to collaborator. Her eighth LP digs deeper into country tradition than she's ever gone before. The results are uneven, but never feel forced or faked.
The cynical response that comes to the fore when an established pop/rock artist like Sheryl Crow makes a country album is that it’s a ploy intended to prop up a flagging career. When the hits get fewer and farther between, you just head to Nashville, ladle on the strings and pedal steel, and you’ve got yourself a brand new audience ready to lap it all up, as if it were that easy. While one would have to be inside the head of Sheryl Crow to determine exactly what her motives were in releasing Feels Like Home, the evidence on the disc suggests that this was a natural progression for Crow’s music rather than a mercenary one.
Resident in Nashville since 2008, it’s taken Crow five years to bite the bullet and make an entire album rooted in the music for which the city is famed. Previous releases have had their country elements, but Feels Like Home (a telling title) puts the rhinestones front and centre. Aided by some of Music City’s most in-demand players, and with singer-songwriter neighbour Brad Paisley acting as mentor, Crow has herself a ball from start to finish, channelling the smoky introspection of Bobbie Gentry on We Oughta Be Drinkin’ and the hen party defiance of Shania Twain on Nobody’s Business.
Well, it happened. Sheryl Crow finally (and fully) embraced the nu-country direction that she was nose-diving towards since 2005’s Wallflower. It’s a somewhat brave choice, but one that’s befitting her seemingly natural progression as an artist. You could have hoped for a more edgy approach to a characteristically uninteresting style, but Sheryl abandoned edgy since she started singing about soaking up the sun and all that bullshit.
Unlike, say, Bon Jovi, it is no great leap for Sheryl Crow to plunge into contemporary country on Feels Like Home. Tuesday Night Music Club, her 1993 debut, could've been called country-rock if it had been released in another era, and she's never shied away from roots music, either giving it a crisp, classy spin or taking a full stylistic detour, as she did on 2010's 100 Miles from Memphis. In some ways, that soul excursion felt like a greater departure for Crow than this 2013 album, as beneath the down-home accouterments of aggressive Telecasters, self-consciously country lyrics, the affected down-home twang in her voice, and the occasional fiddle, Feels Like Home feels like standard-issue Crow, the kind of record that could've been delivered after The Globe Sessions.
“Going country” is a tricky business. The wrong twang here or “y’all” there can make earnest attempts feel insulting. Fortunately, Sheryl Crow already had plenty of roots music in her pop-rock stew — in fact several past Crow hits could easily fit the 2013 format — so much of “Feels Like Home” indeed feels natural. When it doesn’t, it’s tough going, as on the obvious bids for radio play like formulaic first single “Easy” and “We Oughta Be Drinkin’.” Luckily, the balance of “Home” is tilted toward quality.