The highlight of Amanda Shires’s pre-pandemic album ‘To the Sunset’ was a song called ‘Break Out the Champagne’ which was about embracing the apocalypse with a defiant shrug and celebration. Get on with the shit show, she hollered, as if she sensed trouble was brewing up ahead.
On the surface it seemed like Shires had it all: successful solo career, creator of the supergroup the Highwomen, famous husband Jason Isbell, gorgeous daughter, the privilege of beauty, brains, a nice house and home studio, money for expensive designer clothes and round the world travel. What could she have to worry about?
Yet behind the scenes, Shires admits to having been in turmoil. In the studio her music was criticised and she felt overlooked (by whom she has not been specific, but previous producer Dave Cobb is notably absent here). She also admitted that her and Jason endured a fractious time when recording the 400 Unit album ‘Reunions’.
Then the pandemic hit and soon Shires felt like quitting music altogether.
So what changed? Enter a new musical collaborator, the intriguing Lawrence Rothman, who has a distinctive and unique style all of their own. They encouraged her back to the studio and offered her songs for collaboration. There’s something dark and a little edgy about what Rothman brings to the sound and aesthetic on this album, which you feel has been exactly what Shires was looking for.
She opens with Hawk for the Dove, spreading her wings with a little bit of drama and danger. Her violin adds a sense of volatility and violence to the song.
Bird imagery has been woven through her previous work, and on title track Take it Like A Man she expands those metaphors to her current situation: ‘I know the cost of flight is landing’, she sings, concluding that’s she’s tough enough to endure whatever life throws at her.
These opening two songs underline the strength of her personality, her newfound sense of understanding of what she wants in life. Then we move into the central section of the album, dealing directly with a troubled relationship.
Empty Cups is a romantic swoop of a song about the painful absence of connection between two lovers, with Maren Morris offering moral support on backing vocals. ‘Don’t Be Alarmed’ is a sad little acoustic number where she invites her partner to face the truth and ‘be a witness / see it to the end’.
If that’s not upsetting enough we then have the brutal ‘Fault Lines’, a song which Shires admits is so personal that wasn’t even sure she would include it. Here we have her admitting ‘there’s nothing left to fix’ in her marriage and criticising the ‘character you wrote yourself out to be’, directly referencing her husband’s song Flagship. Then on ‘Here He Comes’ she sings about an ‘overconfident creep’ who breaks her heart.
At this point I have to admit I found some of these lyrics quite devastating since, like many Americana fans, I hold Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell up on a pedestal and I’m emotionally invested in them being happy together. Such a marriage between two creative people seems, from the outside, like a dream. But therein lies the problem. If your marriage is so public, so present in the songs you write, then the pressure for perfection is constant.
Isbell has made his career out of presenting a particular version of his life and perhaps Shires is turning the tables on her husband by casting herself in a different role. She doesn’t want to be the saviour, the wife, the support player. She wants to be the centre of attention, in a good way, celebrated on her own terms.
‘Bad Behaviour’ has her flirting with strangers, provocatively asking ‘so what’? Interesting then that ‘Stupid Love’ is next; almost the sound of a woman enjoying the beginning of something new. ‘Lonely At Night’ attempts to find peace, an amicable way forward for people who can no longer offer each other comfort.
The album finishes with ‘Everything Has Its Time’ where a relationship reaches ‘the end of the line’. Musically it doesn’t sound like a tragedy to my ears, infused instead with a sense of gratitude or even a tone of blessed relief.
In the end, therefore, it’s hard not to conclude that this is a divorce album. Or at the very least an honest, unflinching account of the difficulty of sharing your life with someone. Exactly how much of these lyrics are autobiographical is impossible to say. Social media exacerbates the delusions of intimacy we all have with our favourite artists which just encourages us to speculate further (especially bloggers like myself who live for Americana drama). Maybe a song should just be a song.
And Take it Like A Man is full of fantastic songs by an artist blossoming into herself and finding much musical beauty in the sorrow and the shadows. A brilliant and, at times, brutal listen, if you have the heart to endure it then you will be much rewarded.