In some parallel universe, Amanda Shires is approaching a midlife crisis. Maybe not here, where the singer-songwriter-violinist is a critical part of three different bands, as well as a wife, mother and vocal proponent of women’s health and reproductive freedom. But in some other world, one which values female country musicians even less than we do here (if such a thing is possible) another, less self-assured Shires is struggling with choices not made and paths not taken. Some of that Shires bleeds through on this Amanda’s latest album, Take It Like A Man, a collection of songs tied together by the question, “What if…?”
Beginning with 2018’s To The Sunset, Shires began to leave the comfortable trappings of Americana behind, largely leaving her twang with The Highwomen and focusing her accomplished fiddle work with Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit. It was an adjustment that not all of her fans were prepared to make, but Sunset was a damn good rock album, and the songs gained a new pop when performed live. Take It Like A Man, however, finds Shires chasing something new – an amphitheater-worthy sound that pushes her to sing bigger and bolder. The album’s lead track, “Hawk for the Dove,” meets that goal with simmering guitars, a vocal chorus (featuring close friend Brittney Spencer) behind her and a raptorial lust – “You can call me serious trouble/Just admit I’m what you want” – all topped off with a jagged fiddle solo (still a trademark). The record’s title track is a slow burn, all piano, strings and Isbell licks, while Shires contemplates the consequences of going all-in – “I know the cost of flight is landing” – when full-on commitment isn’t the smartest call.
So, what happens when the flight lands and the passion fades? “Empty Cups,” with a bit of that West Texas twang recaptured, along with a vocal assist from fellow Highwoman Maren Morris, takes a practical (if a bit melancholy) look at aging out of a relationship – “For every start, there’s gotta be a stop.” Isbell (who happens to be married to Shires), recent divorcee of note Ruston Kelly and Liz Rose all had a hand in writing “Don’t Be Alarmed,” a subdued, acoustic and piano paced riff on the quiet chaos that comes with love’s unraveling – “I’m losing my balance/I’m not losing my mind” – featuring Shires’ most vulnerable vocal performance.
But the heart – and gut-punch – of Take It Like A Man is found in “Fault Lines.” As a relationship teeters, with blame being cast and possessions being divvied, Shires drops the devastating “And the character you wrote yourself out to be/The flagship all part of my fooling” (“Flagship,” of course, is the sweetest of love songs that Isbell wrote about his wife, and he’ll only perform it when she’s onstage with the band). Shires’ point, with ALL of the bluntness on this record, is honesty – “Just because people listen to Jason’s records and go to his shows and whatnot doesn’t mean they don’t need to know that our marriages look exactly the same as theirs,” she says. They’ve both spoken publicly about their personal struggle during the recording of his Reunions, and she’s rightfully taking her swing at making art out of pain.
As the breakup-that-maybe-almost-was record moves along, there is both happiness – “You were smiling so much, you kissed me with your teeth” in “Stupid Love” – and acceptance of a different phase of life and love in “Everything Has Its Time.” Penned with Highwoman Natalie Hemby and feeling wistful for the rush of early love, the album closer is ready to say goodbye to youth for whatever’s next – “For worse or for better, nothing lasts forever.” And as for that alternate Shires I mentioned earlier? In exploring all of what could’ve happened – maybe almost DID happen – to change the most important (and most private) parts of her life, it’s OUR Amanda’s ability to conjure up a different vision of herself, in order to ask those “What if…” questions, that’s her strength as a songwriter and, more importantly, characterizes her toughness as a human being.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Take It Like A Man” – The title track features Shires’ best vocal work – maybe ever – as she hits peais previously heard on “Parking Lot Pirouette” (from To The Sunset).
Take It Like A Man was produced and mixed by Lawrence Rothman, engineered by Gena Johnson and Louis Remenapp and mastered by Pete Lyman. All songs were written by Amanda Shires, with co-writing credits going to Rothman, Jason Isbell, Ruston Kelly, Liz Rose, Yves Rothman, Peter Levin and Natalie Hemby. Additional musicians on the album include Rothman (guitars, keys, percussion, piano, drums), Isbell (guitars), Levin (piano, organ, keys, drums), Fred Eltringham (drums, percussion), Jimbo Hart (bass), Brittney Spencer (background vocals), Maren Morris (background vocals), Austin Hoke (cello), Kristin (violin), Kris Wilkinson (viola), Julian Dorio (drums, percussion), Ben Zelico (mellotron, keys), Peter Stroud (guitars), Audley Freed (guitars), Mark Franklin (trumpet), Art Edmaiston (tenor sax), Kirk Smothers (baritone sax), Kameron Whalum (trombone) and Michael Schmelling (stomp clap).
Go here to buy Take It Like A Man: https://stores.portmerch.com/amandashires/
Check out tour dates on Shires’ website: https://amandashiresmusic.com/