Artists are usually better when they're miserable, and Sheryl Crow is proving to be no exception. "Wildflower," her first studio album since meeting and becoming engaged to Lance Armstrong, isn't the sticky mash note it could have been, but its weird polar opposite: a shiny ballad album split between love songs and darker tracks about the war in Iraq and the rise of religious intolerance.
Crow's last studio release, 2002's "C'mon, C'mon," sounded exactly like what it was: a panicky midlife crisis album stuffed with unconvincingly perky '70s-inspired pop songs. It was enjoyable but improbable, since no one seemed to buy the idea of Crow as a summery pop tartlet in the mold of the newly revamped Liz Phair, least of all Crow herself.
"Wildflower" would have been a perfect vehicle for a return to her strengths: After all, Crow has one of rock's most raggedly imperfect voices, ostensibly well suited to the deeply personal midtempo ballads about love and doubt that constitute the bulk of the songs here. But "Wildflower" is dismayingly glossy, with swelling strings and multitracked vocals that rob Crow -- who was never exactly Courtney Love in the first place -- of her sharp edges. Crow's usual emphasis on guitars has been replaced by an over-reliance on strings, which oversweeten, and occasionally overpower, the disc's delicate songs. Shellacked where it should be sharp, "Wildflower" manages to be both polished and depressing, synthetic and deep.
In direct contrast to most of "C'mon, C'mon," "Wildflower" is a sober -- and sobering -- album, as concerned with mortality as it is with love.
Crow historically excels at such lightly metaphysical musings ("Everyday Is a Winding Road" being just one example), and the best tracks here are no exception: The comparatively spare "Where Has All the Love Gone" is a pretty general state-of-the-world meditation with a tough center ("Today I saw a flag roll by on a wooden box / And if it's true we lost our way / Then what have we got?"); "Letter to God" is clunkier, but equally appealing.
There are several fine, if standard, midtempo tracks that recall past Crow hits ("I Know Why," "Good Is Good"), and one ("Lifetimes") with a mildly funky beginning that suggests, of all people, Beck. But "Wildflower" yields itself too easily to a collection of damp, overbuilt ballads that smooth out Crow's vocal quirks and bulldoze any sense of nuance with windy orchestral passages, pianos and tablas.
Crow is too good to have made a truly bad album, and the real problem with "Wildflower" is that it's more virtuous than absorbing. Buried under about three coats of varnish and the occasionally dubious couplet about nature's poetry lies the spare, sleek, flawed record Crow should have made, and maybe will make someday soon: "Wildflower" is reportedly the "arty" half of a two-disc set that includes a more conventional pop album to be released next year. This may or may not mean a return to the spirited, rootsy pop-rock Crow does best, but it's hard not to hope so. At this point, a change would do her good.