THERE'S a concept in psychology of the "good-enough mother" -- the exemplary caregiver who satisfies a child's needs without smothering budding independence. Today's stressed-out parents have turned to this 1950s ideal of relaxed but sensitive nurturing again, almost as an alibi. A "good-enough" mom deserves praise even if she doesn't purée her own baby food. In fact, as rampant consumerism, shrinking resources and reality-TV psychosis cast us all as competitors, the phrase "good enough" has become a general salve.
Sheryl Crow is one star who embodies this ideal -- a "good-enough" mother for us all. For 15 years, her singles have provided radio with basic nutrition, and her albums have consistently settled around No. 3 on the charts. Her new "Detours" disc (due in stores Tuesday) is a carefully designed midlife highlight, musically varied and lyrically audacious. Yet it remains true to Crow's consummately casual artistry.
Dogged at first by accusations that she was just an Eliza Doolittle, trained to jump by talented men, Crow has proven her mettle so many times that her unique position is now taken for granted. She may be the most successful woman rocker ever, with the most consistently auspicious career. But she's still often dismissed as merely competent.
It's a trick. Crow is indeed eminently capable; her Beatles-based songwriting is tight as a drum, her former session-singer's voice cracks only on cue, and her deceptively loose-sounding arrangements make ear candy of the traditional structures she loves. Putting craft first, she's been modest about articulating a larger vision. She has one, though, and on "Detours," she gives it more room.
Crow's hits aren't heroic. Leave the chest-pounding to the divas, and the world-conquering to the arena boys: Crow has carved out her niche within the overlooked commonplace world, creating an oeuvre that's all about imperfection, failure and striving despite (often within) self-doubt.
Her masterpieces are ballads such as "Strong Enough" and "If It Makes You Happy," inward-looking expressions of pain that hold out just enough hope to keep love possible. Her vocal delivery, the way she paces the leap to falsetto on a chorus or pushes toward a yell midphrase, is what brings their ambivalence to life.
Her breezier songs express the same complex view of life as a series of downs made tolerable by more fleeting ups. Two of her biggest recent hits, 2002's "Soak Up the Sun" and 2005's "Steve McQueen," exemplify Crow's way of turning an arched eyebrow toward rock's liberationist bravado. The first is anti-consumerist bubblegum, its slacker-righteous lyrics disguised by Crow's shiny, multitracked vocals. "Steve McQueen" adds a dollop of weariness to the classic road song, with Crow riding a Texas bar-band riff toward Thelma-and-Louise-style oblivion.
The albums that bore these hits were decent successes, but Crow still hasn't made that career-topping work that sends long-lived artists toward legend status.
"Detours" is that attempt, a bold album that puts Crow's convictions -- and her chops as a singer and songwriter -- front and center. A reunion with producer Bill Bottrell, who helmed her debut, and a response to the intense public scrutiny she endured during her romance with cycling champ Lance Armstrong, it foregrounds musical risk-taking and lyrical truth-telling. It's a move toward the territory of the heroic, and occasionally swells into grandiosity. But to Crow's credit, she can't let go of her qualifiers and her doubts.
Coming after a series of life-shaking events -- a battle with breast cancer, the split from Armstrong, single motherhood through adoption -- "Detours" is being sold as one of Crow's most personal albums. There's a plain-spoken lullaby for her son. There are a couple of kiss-offs thrown toward Armstrong; the best is a glammy vamp that would have been perfect for Bottrell's other former protégé, Shelby Lynne.
"Make It Go Away" eerily invokes radiation therapy, and Crow sings it with wrenching clarity as a click track conjures the horrible tedium of illness. Crow definitely laid herself out in these songs, though the greater sense of intimacy may simply be a result of her time in the tabloids with Armstrong, which clothed her in the faux-accessibility of celebrity. As a singer, she's always been great at hitting nerves. That doesn't change just because we're now supposed to believe they're her own.
What feels most real is Crow's political conviction. Some of Crow's role models, such as John Mellencamp and Neil Young, have transformed themselves into fervent polemicists, and "Shine Over Babylon," the first single from "Detours," suggests that Crow might be headed in that direction: An environmentalist jeremiad with a furiously sweeping hook, it's the opposite of subtle. But elsewhere, she turns her big statements into party songs, a twist that alleviates the weight of the lyrics and turns that gift for ambiguity into a sneaky consciousness-raising tool.
"Love Is Free" confronts the horrors of post-Katrina Louisiana; its countrified jauntiness goes down easy, but with a bitter tang. "Peace Be Upon Us" calls for tolerance by incorporating Arabic elements into what could be a Bangles song. "Motivation" resurrects the satire of "Soak Up the Sun," poking fun at famous boys in $100 T-shirts and the girls who admire them, as a sliding guitar line and a popcorn drum part push the shoppers along.
Crow's progressive lyrics hit like rubber-band pings fired by some joker in the back row at school. No one is likely to sing her verses at a march on Washington. But by addressing serious issues in the language of pop, they remind us that political speech and casual breeze-shooting can and do often intersect.
These lighter-toned takes on the state of the world let Crow take pride in the everyday tone that she's mastered. They're interrupted now and then by love songs -- the one in which she plays a smitten ingénue is harder to buy than the one about her "paper-thin heart." Better than either are the two offhand ballads in which Crow goes into a tiny private moment and gently extracts its essence.
The one that opens "Detours" is a character song; the other closes it, and it's all Crow's. Both are simply arranged to highlight her conversational singing. "God Bless This Mess" imagines a telemarketer trying to understand how the fallout from 9/11 cracked apart her unremarkable life; it's two minutes of telling, taciturn sadness.
"Lullaby for Wyatt" is Crow's love song to her son, and what's beautiful about it is her frank uncertainty about how to guide this little creature through such a messed-up world. "You are mine, for a time," Crow breathes as her baby cries in the background, a good-enough mother already realizing that she's going to have to let go.