For what she insists will her final full-length album, Sheryl Crow is wanting to go out using the buddy system to make her exit. With “Threads,” it’s as if she looked at the uber-collaborative world of hip-hop and modern pop and said, “You like ‘features’? I’ll show you kids features.” Across 17 tracks, she employs more than 20 guest stars, mostly from the realm of legends; coming up with an exact count is difficult when old pals like Don Henley and Neil Young don’t even take a featured credit amid those like Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, Joe Walsh, St. Vincent, Emmylou Harris and Chuck D who do.
The aforementioned celebs-to-songs ratio spells out the fact that any number of tracks feature multiple guests: Why have just Brandi Carlile appear on a cover of George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” when Sting and Eric Clapton can pop in, too? It is what we in the trade like to call a celebrity clusterf… est. But if it sounds like it’s not going to make for a terribly cohesive album with all those constant turns into Crow’s Rolodex, that’s kind of the point for this supposed farewell to the long-form form. Before she goes off to (presumably) emphasize touring, she means to make one last tour through all the styles and personas she’s taken on record, from good-time girl to crypto-balladeer, with a little help from her Eagles and Stones.
In the finer moments of “Threads,” of which there are many, you get used to the all-star interlopers as, especially in its late stretches, the album finally settles into something a lot more personal than you’d expect: It’s got some of the best writing she’s done. And in the lighter moments or the ones where you can’t escape thinking about the sheer amount of talent-wrangling that went into it… well, what’s the musical equivalent of people-watching? “Threads” is never less than a great excuse to people-listen as she runs through her A-list of Facebook friends.
The material is a grab-bag of covers, reinterpretations of her own work and (mostly) freshly penned songs. Among the outside choices, the throb in Carlile’s voice was practically made for Harrison’s oft-covered “All Things Must Pass”-era classic. But the closest thing to a clear standout among these 17 choices is her hookup with Richards on “The Worst,” an overlooked contribution he made as a lead vocalist to the Stones’ 1994 “Voodoo Lounge.” With a song this gorgeous in his catalog, why does Richards still insist on choosing from the same four tunes for his spotlight moments on the Stones’ tours, year after year? Anyway, the tune has gotten its emotional rescue here, with Crow handling the lead vocal by herself — putting a slightly unlikely bad-girl gender switch on Richards’ confessions of a reluctant rogue — while he reminds us that, unlike his famously raggedy guitar sound, he’s far from raggedy as a tender harmony singer.
When it comes to that particular quality, of course, it would be tough to top the arguably greatest harmony singer of our or the next lifetime, Emmylou, whose blood-perfect complementary part on the defiantly sweet “Nobody’s Perfect” establishes she and Crow are brothers from another mother. That’s part of a four-song stretch at the very end of the collection where Crow forgets about rocking out and just gets down with her bad ruminative self.
“Don’t,” featuring the sublime duo Lucius, is a highly successful attempt to recreate a Burt-Bacharach-meets-Dionne-or-Duty-in-Memphis style, albeit with lyrics personal and pointed enough that it doesn’t just come off as an expert genre pastiche. “Flying Blind,” a finger-picky duet with James Taylor, is about nearly all sure bets and safety nets being swept away in life’s later stages … and feeling fine about that. (It’s hard to get too angsty about existential uncertainty when Taylor’s is one of the reassuring voices.) The closing “For the Sake of Love” uses Vince Gill’s high, pure tones to end on the album’s one real heartbreaker, which looks back on lost romantic possibilities in what’s sort of the opposite of a “My Way.” Regrets? She’s had a few, but then, way too many to mention, or at least not to question.
But focusing on these beauties that come late in the album risks deemphasizing just how much earlier on Crow is also the crowd-pleaser who just wants to have some fun and, you know, doesn’t want Joe Walsh feeling he’s the only one. Their easy-going rocker “Still the Good Old Days” is as serotonin-affirming as its title — as close as this album comes to pandering, but proficiently goofy enough you’d feel churlish denying it its cheerful place in the set.
As sing-alongs go, anyway, there’s no contest here — that pole position is reserved for “Prove You Wrong,” a rootsier hookup with Maren Morris and Stevie Nicks that feels like the best track Crow forgot to put on her putative country album, “Feels Like Home,” a few years ago. We’ve already got the Pistol Annies and Highwomen, sure, but there’s no reason these three couldn’t make a go of the country-rock supergroup supertrend, too, if Crow is looking for her next act in life (even though Morris may be spread a little thin these days).
She makes in-laws out of outlaws by bringing in both Willie and Kris for duets. Kristofferson isn’t always the easiest guy to harmonize with, for obviously rasp reasons, but she makes him sound to the harmonizing manor born on “Border Lord.” With Nelson, she’s bringing out less of his country side than his crooner tendencies in “Lonely Alone,” a saloon-song duet between strangers in the night who may or may not be destined to hook up for a mutual mercy tryst as closing time closes in.
Not everything scores quite as high here. “Live Wire” features both Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt, but there’s little enough of either of them that you wish she’d just picked one or the other and stuck with ’em. That same sort of cluster problem pops up on “Story of Everything,” where it’s unquestionably cool to have Chuck D rapping and Gary Clark Jr. soloing but you really just want Andra Day turned up and left to wail more. That trying-to-do-too-much problem also affects the song’s socially conscious lyrics, which move from an introductory mass shooting and jab at congressional inaction to literally trying to be about everything.
And “Tell Me When It’s Over,” a duet with Stapleton, kind of wastes him as a partner in the same way that Justin Timberlake’s recent hookup with Stapleton did: He’s left to echo Crow’s lines in the chorus when the guy really needs to get his own damn verse (especially since he co-wrote the song).
Someone who definitely is not shunted into a secondary role is Johnny Cash, who sings a “duet” with Crow on “Redemption Day,” a song she wrote and recorded for her second album and which he covered as part of his latter-day run with Rick Rubin. Her remake of the song is so startlingly good and haunting — with not much more than a piano backing and some striking chordal changes that render it even more melancholy — that it almost seems like gilding, or interrupting, the lily to suddenly have Cash’s voice come in from the afterworld. But his autumnally vulnerable and sweet voice and her unshakable one sound so good ‘n’ sad together that you may override any biases you harbor about grave-spanning collaborations and embrace this one as the spooky triumph it is.
No doubt Crow means it when she says this is it for her as an album artist — she’s been saying it for the couple of years that she’s been promising “Threads.” But will she stick with it, or is declaring that you’re abandoning making music in the supposedly passe album form the modern-day equivalent of going on your first “farewell” tour? “Threads” is strong enough that we should probably all agree now not to shame her if she goes back on her word.
Big Machine Records
Produced by Steve Jordan
Featured guests: Maren Morris, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raid, Chris Stapleton, Chuck D, Andra Day, Gary Clark Jr., Eric Clapton, Sting, Brandi Carlile, Johnny Cash, Lukas Nelson, Jason Isbell, Keith Richards, Wille Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Joe Walsh, St. Vincent, Lucius, Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Vince Gill.