I’ve never felt the need to have the latest and greatest when it comes to popular music, since, as I’ve noted previously, so much of it is garbage. In fact, I tend to wait longer than many people, so I can rely on early adopters to filter good music from bad for me. If, after a few months (or years), Metallica’s Black album, for example, still holds up, and I still like “The Unforgiven”, well, then it might be a good time to get it. Of course, this approach also tends to save me a lot of cash as well, not just in terms of accidentally buying stuff I won’t like, but also due to the fact that I can get it used.
It is with this philosophy firmly in place that I finally picked up Sheryl Crow’s title album. (Well, got it for Christmas, actually, but who’s counting.) The vetters were right; this is good stuff.
The big question, of course, is whether you should read the rest of this (admittedly long) post; it has been twelve years since this album came out. Yeah, maybe there’s nothing here that hasn’t been said already; but if you like SC, you can groove to shared appreciation, and if you don’t maybe I can change your mind.
Moving on: SC is good for a lot of different reasons. First off, she’s a good songwriter, and that’s rare among popular musicians. Second, her music has…something. Grit? Earthiness? Not sure, but whatever it is, there’s power in her songs. Force.
Maybe Angels opens the CD, and its opening power-chorded fourth drops us straight into that bluesy strength that’s so fascinating. There’s a sense here, and in all of her songs, of authenticity. Here, the lyrics, music, all of it, points toward a woman who really is “too wise to believe her eyes/cause all [she] sees just terrifies [her]”, and is waiting for the real thing (angels, aliens, whatever, really) to come and take her away into a world of real truth. And what a great way to open a popular music CD: no lyrics about loving a guy who doesn’t love her back, or not loving a guy who loves her, or wanting to get with a guy. Actual songwriting; how cool is that? It’s also a great showcase of SC’s awesome voice; she doesn’t have the range of a Mariah Carey or the capabilities for “vocal histronics” (love that phrase) so evident in American Idol contestants, but it’s one of the most authentic singing voices I’ve heard. When vibrato is needed, we get vibrato, but when frustration and fear needs to be sung, we get the growls, shouts, and voice-cracking we need. And this song is good evidence for a theme of SC’s music in general: fearlessness. From making a nonpopular song, or sounding bad (a more calculating performer, for instance, would never have let a Moog within ten feet of this song, but it figures prominently, and works well, in it), or screwing things up. Powerful stuff.
Sheryl Crow was interviewed on Fresh Air recently. She grew up Missouri, happily, in a musical family. (And she still has an amazingly pronounced (ugh) Missouruh accent. Yet another example of the universality of music; her (and almost anyone’s) accent is subsumed when singing). And yet you’d never know it here; the growling guitar and howling Sheryl fit perfectly with someone who grew up hard, is scared and really just wants to believe. Again: authenticity.
A Change is track two. I’m a lyrics fanatic, and I’m usually pretty good about ferreting out a/the meaning of a song, but the first verse of this song still stumps me. Rich miser? Guy named Feedback? Not sure, but apparently he could use A Change. Same with the second verse: aging, fake ex-beauty queen? Not-so-subtle indictment of the Britney of her time? (Heh, probably Britney herself.) And the first part of the third: wakeup call to fanboys? People who otherwise get lost in fantasy? I get the sense that this is one of those songs written about people she knows, but that we don’t necessarily. The last verse, though, is undiluted, understandable, awesome:
I’ve been thinking about catching a train
Leave the phone machine by the radar range
“Hello it’s me
I’m not at home
If you’d like to reach me
Leave me alone.”
Radar ranges are usually out in the desert: they’re where the military practices blowing stuff up. So not only is the answering machine message itself sufficiently (and wryly) insular, the machine on which it’s recorded is doomed to neglect, rust, and eventual obliteration. I can’t remember when I last heard better imagery for checking out. Again though; how is this related to needing a change? And was it meant to be? Questions, questions.
Still, though a great song. A good example, though, of one of my biggest problems with Sheryl Crow; it’s very tough to tell just how cruel she’s being to her subjects. Okay, yeah, it’s easy to make fun of people that want to check out, or people that don’t but maybe should, but if the only point of your song is “You suck and I don’t, haha”, then, well, you have a pretty poor song. I get the sense she has some sympathy with her subjects, or maybe she’s really criticizing parts of herself, but I’m just not sure enough that songs like this bother me a bit.
“Home” is next, and again, it’s nice to not have to listen to a song by a popular musician that’s not about the sex, breaking up, or getting-together parts of love. Here’s a song about love where everything goes perfectly, for the first year or two. After ten years or so, “What it means to give your life/To just one man” isn’t wonderful; it’s passionless, imprisoning, and stultifying. (“No bees, no butterflies”, “I made a promise/Said it every day/Now I’m reading romance novels/And dreaming of yesterday.” “Everything I wanted/Is now driving me away”). We’ve all heard songs about love growing cold, but I’ll take good lyrics in service to a common theme any day.
“Sweet Rosalyn” is about a girl “during a wild streak in her life”. SC? Someone she knows? A part of her personality that never actually came out? Probably doesn’t matter; here’s just a fun story about a wild girl. Have to wonder, again, just how much cruelty is going on here, but it’s still a good ride. And the second verse, of course, is just hilarious:
She got a number off the bathroom wall
She was looking for good times so she made the call
Got a strangely calm voice on the other line
Sneaky little priest trying to reach out to swine…
“Seems to me your zeal for this life
Has been wearing a little thin”
Makes me wonder just how many bathroom wall numbers for which that’s true…
“If It Makes You Happy”. Also from the Fresh Air interview: SC is one of those people that just doesn’t get down (in the dumps). And I can absolutely see her doing just what the singer does in this song; going to a friend’s house that does get down, to cheer him/her up. (Again.) With escapism
I’ve been a long, long way from here
Put on a poncho, played for mosquitoes
We went searching through thrift store jungles
Found Geronimo’s rifle
and Benny Goodman’s corset and pen
Well, o.k., I made this up
I told you I would never give up
and changing the environment
Bring you comics in bed
Scrape the mold off the bread
And serve you French Toast again
And through it all is the exasperation people who don’t get down sometimes feel for those that do:
If it makes you happy
Then why the hell are you so sad
Who knows if SC has ever done this; it’s sure written as if she has. And that, of course, is the awesome part. One last note: the first part of the chorus? (If it makes you happy/It can’t be that bad)? People who get down, for various reasons, often reject the very things that would bring them out of their funks. That’s a pretty subtle thing to notice, and a nice touch to the lyric.
Yeah, yeah, I got this CD because of “Every Day is a Winding Road”. But the more I listened to the CD, the more I liked “Redemption Day”, and it’s among my favorite SC songs now. And the reason is that’s a tremendously-well executed twist on a common theme. The theme is redemption, and we usually think of redemption as the unfairly downtrodden finally getting the good that they deserve. The twist is this: what about the other side? What about those in power who abuse it? Especially when they know the evil of their actions? (Those who’ve gone/Into rooms of grief and suffered wrong/But keep on killing) Shouldn’t they reap what they sow as well? Yes. There’s a train that’s headed straight to Heaven’s Gate, but it’s not filled with just the good who’ll be rewarded; it carries the evil who will be judged. “And on the way/Child and man/And woman…watch and wait”. What are they waiting for? I think they’re waiting for the other, overlooked but vital, part of redemption: the guilty will be punished.
(Interesting tidbit: the lyrics say “…train that’s headed straight to Heaven’s Gate”, but on the song, it sounds like she’s saying “…train that’s headed straight at Heaven’s Gate). One little word, but it completely changes the feeling of the line; Heaven’s Gate is now less of a destination, and more something to be overcome. Or broken. In any case, the train and the Gate now have a more antagonistic relationship. Considering its partially-unrepentant cargo, that’s probably quite accurate. Extremely subtle change, but extremely powerful result.
The guilty are legion: those who watch the “fire that rages in the streets” that “swallows everything it meets”, and do nothing (“it’s just an image often seen on television”). Those powerful in politics and government (“leaders…you men of great”), who have nothing to give but false morality (“your many virtues laid to waste”), ineffectual (condescending?) help (“throw us a bone but save the plate”), and self-serving destruction (Was there no oil to excavate/No riches in trade for the fate/For every person who died in hate). This last is especially powerful, coming at the end of the verse, with each line past the first having the same melodic and lyric structure, and extending the verse beyond the others. It comes across as a litany of accusation: “You’re guilty of this. And this. And this. And this!”
This is just amazing stuff; I’ve listened to Redemption Day tens of times, and just reading through the lyrics for this post is sending chills down my spine.
The last verse is tougher to grok. (It’s buried in the countryside/Exploding into shells at night/It’s everywhere a baby cries/Freedom). My best guess is that this is another neat variation on a common theme: we have all have the freedom to be evil as well as virtuous. That’s a good end for a song, and a good thing to consider in general.
One other thing: this song is an excellent example of one of the things I really like about SC: her ability to subsume all parts of a song to its theme. Her lyrics and music don’t have the sheer complexity of a Bach or Paul Simon, but everything she does do usually serves the song. The song is primarily driven by a single brush loop (shooka shooka shooka shooka…) and guitar riff (bum badum dum badabum), that powerfully evoke the image of an implacable, unstoppable, onrushing train. Marvelous.
“Hard to Make a Stand” is next. Apparently SC was eating in a cafe, and the subject of the first verse was there: a homeless man who hands out flowers, and wrote out “I’m not here, and you’re not here”. It’s a great setup for the song; he really is “a walking celebration” not for Creation, but “Mis-creation”, the parts of the universe that just aren’t right. There’s more that isn’t right in the second verse: the singer’s friend is “shot down in the road”, and the papers laugh about it. (Of course, you can’t help but laugh when they do: the friend “went to take care of her own body”, and after the shooting “looked up before she went, and said “This isn’t really what I meant””. The paper’s response? “Two with one stone”. Ouch. But still funny.)
Editor’s note: in spite of trying not to, I went online and looked up this song to see if anyone else had thought about the meaning of this verse. I couldn’t find the original source, but some people said that the second verse has to do with abortion. If that’s the case, her friend “went to take care of her own body”, i.e., have an abortion, but was “shot down in the road” by abortion protesters on the way in, and the papers were referring to the unborn child and mother as the “two”, instead of the the friend and her desire to “take care of her own body”. In that case, the verse is decidedly unfunny. I suppose that’s possible, but I still think my interpretation fits a bit better. “Take care of her own body” makes me think of a trip to the gym, or the plastic surgeon. And getting “shot down in the road” implies a randomness I just don’t see from abortion protesters in front of a clinic. And the friend’s final words (“This isn’t really what I meant”) are awfully irreverent for an assumed abortion-related shooting.
Third verse; more evidence of things gone wrong: noise and fear (“loud guitars and big suspicions”), implements of destruction put to poor use (“great big guns and small ambitions”).
And the singer’s response: “Hey there, Miscreation, bring a flower, time is wasting”, and “…”we all need a revelation”. Help us out Miscreation? Perhaps. Here’s an amazing thing, though; this song was a megahit; it was played over and over, not the least because it’s, in addition to all that lyrical meat, a rocking song. How cool is that?
As noted before, I actually put this CD on my Christmas list because of “Every Day is a Winding Road”. It still holds up: the verses are still hilarious: the “vending machine repairman” she rides with is “high on intellectualism”, who’s “been down this road” not just before, but “more than twice”, and has a “daughter that he calls Easter” but “was born on a Tuesday night”. Again, you can’t help but wonder how much of this is laughing with him versus laughing at him, but all this strangeness does do a great job at reinforcing the singer’s sense of isolation: “stranger in her own life”. In spite of all this, though, everyday she gets a little “closer to feeling fine”.
And the music itself is still awesome: the (electric guitar?) amped to sound like a kazoo that plays the simple but addictive six-note riff that pervades the song, and the drum track (bap bap bap
badabadabap bap badabadabada bap) that drives it, which is among the rockingest I’ve ever heard. It’s times like hearing this song that make me want to learn to play the drums, just so I can have as much as fun as drummer here is obviously having. I do note that this drum loop appears quite a few times elsewhere in the album; I’m guessing it was done because of the “if you’ve got a good thing go with it” rationalization.
Next up is “Love is a Good Thing”, another neat song with a twist: in a world where our children “kill each other” at schools where the “metal detector [has] just been installed”, where people hide in fear to keep from seeing something they “wish they hadn’t seen”, where politicians who “don’t like the way you live your life” “bring them up bring them down for the good of the system”, and where “justice is a fading light”, how about an alternative? How about love? Why? Because “love is a good thing”, and that’s a perfectly sufficient reason.
Of course, this song was a megahit as well, for all the standard reasons; catchy tune, good production, easily-digestible, sung by a hottie, etc. But isn’t it great that it can be appreciated on this whole other level, just for the deftness of its writing?
“Oh, Marie” Though the subject in this song appears to be “wild” from the singer’s perspective in general, and not just for a time, and though the singer appears to idolize the subject a bit more, I can’t help but think this song is along much the same lines as “Sweet Rosalyn”. It seems a bit fillerish for that reason. Still though, it has a gem of a line: “need is love/and love is need”. So anything you really can’t live without is something you love, and love is something you can’t live without. Interesting thoughts, and well put.
This post is burgeoning, I’m tiring, and the CD moves into not-quite-as-great filler-y songs, so I’ll finish up quickly: “Superstar” is about women who need celebrity, and what happens when they lose the looks that make it possible. “The Book” appears to be the singer’s (SC’s own?) reaction to having a torrid love affair appear as a tell-all book, and “Ordinary Morning” appears to be another song in the same vein of “Home”, in which the singer thinks about how her life is going off course. All solid songs, though.
“Leaving Las Vegas” is probably still my favorite SC song (I was shocked when I discovered that she was never actually a down-and-out Vegas dancer who gets so fed up with her life she changes it; it’s that authentic a song), but I sure am glad I got this album.
Even if it only took twelve years.