Sheryl Crow's most recent album, "Detours," vaults one of rock's most popular and successful female artists into the ranks of the great messengers of our time. It's an extraordinarily powerful work, the best to date by a seasoned musician who has fused her trademark strong melodies and memorable hooks onto some very potent songs designed to wake us up from the darkness of the last eight years.
Like a modern liberating Medusa, she rises above the tumult as archetypal feminine wisdom exposing the excesses of unbridled power and materialism run amok. Released in February 2008, "Detours" is basically a fervent prayer for conscious change.
Opening with references to 9/11 and Bush's deceit about weapons of mass destruction on "God Bless This Mess," Crow decries our materialistic obsessions on "Shine Over Babylon" and the lure of empty fame on "Motivation." She indicts our oil addiction on "Gasoline," exposes the Katrina debacle on "Love is Free" and pleads for us to wake from our collective narcolepsy on the Middle-Eastern flavored "Peace Be Upon Us."
You don’t necessarily know who you’re writing for, who ultimately is going to own the music emotionally. The only thing I can do is write from a place of truth and experience.
Sheryl Crow’s activism extends beyond her latest recording. She took part in get-out-the-vote efforts during the 2008 election and performed at the We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.
Pianist Scott Cossu plays a benefit concert for the Sierra Club-Maui Friday.
So what inspired this musician known to masses for wanting "to have some fun" and "soak up the sun" to dive so ardently into political territory.
"It's an indictment of where we were at that moment," Crow explains. "People didn't want to face the reality of what was happening, but I do think there has been a shift towards people wanting to be awake. It might have been a little bit ahead of its time unfortunately. It's difficult these days to make that kind of record and watch it not do well."
Maybe it was too strong for some?
"I think people were still a little bit in denial, kind of grasping onto their sleep state, to not really have to embrace the unavoidable. I just know that as an artist and particularly at that moment, as a new mom the sense of urgency is what really drives me to write about the truth now. In the old days it was fun and easy to write pop songs that sort of alluded to what was happening socio-politically, but now for me it's imperative that I write about the things that are of the utmost concern to me. While I love pop music and want to continue to do that, the challenge as an artist is to try and bring some kind of pertinent content to the pop domain."
While contemporaries like Neil Young and John Mellencamp have recently explored similar themes, Crow astutely delivers her material without being dogmatic, cushioning songs with a beguiling, sunny tone.
"I've always loved being able to mix, juxtapose a pretty happy tune, a memorable melody with a lyric that's perhaps diametrically opposed to the feeling," she continues. "But in this instance, I wasn't as aware of that. I just felt a real sense of urgency to write about what was happening. It was like it was in our faces yet we were walking past it like it was the elephant in the living room. I could not not write about it. But I still love pop music and gravitate to it and write from that as springboard."
Thus this masterful composer spins the apocalyptic "Gasoline" - "It was the summer of the riots, And London sat in sweltering heat, And the gangs of Mini Coopers, Took the battle to the streets" - with a rocking Stones' swagger and a biting, Dylan-esque half-spoken delivery. In concert Crow has artfully blended "Gasoline" into "Gimme Shelter."
And her rallying call to resist oppressive fear-mongering on "Out of Our Heads" with its jubilant chorus - "If we could only get out of our heads, out of our heads, And into our hearts" - recalls John Lennon's crowd-rousing anthems.
"I've been seriously drawn to what John Lennon and George Harrison did," says Crow. "Their music really resonates with me, and when I go to write, I find they show up a lot in my music."
"Detours" is also elevated into the pantheon of outstanding recordings of our time by the inclusion of a memorable set of highly personal songs. They expose her recent tabloid-covered trials and tribulations, including her breakup with cyclist Lance Armstrong and her battle with breast cancer that can undoubtedly inspire and strengthen those faced with similar challenges.
"You don't necessarily know who you're writing for, who ultimately is going to own the music emotionally," she suggests. "The only thing I can do is write from a place of truth and experience. In the last few years l went through a lot of upheaval publicly. I took two years before I wrote about it to give myself some distance and perspective, and also to release myself from the fear of people hearing it.
"All of our experiences are universal. Pain is pain no matter how it is packaged. Sorrow and grief and fear and love and abandonment are universal emotions. The stories may be different but the experience is the same. So in that way, people do wind up relating to your music by default."
One of the album's most extraordinary songs, "Make It Go Away," chillingly recounts Crow's cancer radiation treatment. Recalling the intensity of John and Yoko's primal work, it's almost too painful to hear.
"It was very Plastic Ono," she agrees. "That song was an interesting process because I hadn't written directly about my cancer experience. At my record label, (chairman) Jimmy Lovine came to me and said, 'People want to hear about it.' But how do you write a song that's just not totally sappy and self indulgent? So I avoided writing about it. The very last minute of the writing process, that song came out and it was really the result of my frustration of trying to write about it. I love the way it turned out."
Since her chart-topping debut in1993, Crow has sold more than 20 million albums, won nine Grammys and become one of the most esteemed female musicians in rock. It's a testament to the respect so many peers hold for Crow that leading legends have been drawn to work with her. This august group includes the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, Johnny Cash and most recently, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
Crow was one of a handful of artists invited to sing with the two former Beatles at the Change Begins Within benefit concert for filmmaker David Lynch's foundation to sponsor TM meditation in schools. It was held on April 4 at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
With Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, she backed Starr on a rousing "Yellow Submarine" singalong, and joined the two Beatles for "Cosmically Conscious" (composed while McCartney was meditating in India) and the closing "I Saw Her Standing There."
"That was amazing for so many reasons," says Crow. "They sang 'With a Little Help From My Friends,' which they had never done together before. And I got to stand behind the great Ringo Starr and sing 'Yellow Submarine.' The whole evening had a special vibe. The whole idea of meditation in the school system and what a difference it's making, it was an amazing night."
The two living Beatles had reunited to help raise funds to promote meditation in schools as a method of de-stressing. A decade-long meditator, Crow credits the technique with helping her navigate through a busy life. "It's been very valuable for me," she notes. "I have a really active brain and it gives me an opportunity to quiet my brain and also makes my days longer because you have such a strong connection to your center.
"On David Lynch's foundation Web site, there are interviews with kids who have grown up in pretty violent situations without moms and dads, and their grades are low. They testify that since they've been meditating at school, their grades have gone up and when they get into situations where they would have immediately gone into an angry mode, they are able to calm themselves and find their center. It's very promising."
Another concert highlight this year saw this ardent Barack Obama supporter perform on Jan. 18 at the We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, joining will.i.am and Herbie Hancock to perform Bob Marley's "One Love."
"That was amazing, too," she enthuses. "It was not like any other gig I've ever played. There were 500,000 people celebrating the idea of possibility and hope. When we had spent eight years of cynicism and fear, to see that many people celebrating the turning of a corner had a huge impact on me. It's something I'll never forget."
Who chose the song?
"They chose the song, I don't know if it was Obama himself or his people. We were asked to do that song which was great for me because I love Bob Marley and the meaning of the song and symbolism was perfect."
* Sheryl Crow and her band perform on Tuesday under the stars at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's events lawn. Willie K will open the 7 p.m. show. Gates open at 5 p.m. Reserved Tickets are $45, $55, $65 and $125, plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
Pianist Scott Cossu returns to Maui to perform his compositions on the grand piano on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Makawao Union Church. The concert is a benefit for the Sierra Club-Maui.
Classically trained, Cossu has played concerts around the world, composed film and TV scores (PBS' "Nova" series), and has released 13 recordings including his most recent CD, "Tides Between Us." For many years he released music on the Windham Hill label. Fusing folk, classical, jazz and rock influences, he ranges from vibrant blues-based tunes to works with subtle, Eastern flavors.
* Tickets are $15 and are available at the door, cash or check only.