Take it Like a Man isn’t a flawless record, but it has the swagger and the confidence of an artist who knows she’s struck a fertile artistic vein.
When she announced the release of a new album called Take it Like a Man, Amanda Shires asserted her desire to write about women with a sense of agency and interiority; to make her female leads “more than just a character in someone else’s life.” It’s a fitting statement of purpose for the singer, songwriter, and Highwoman who has spent her career upholding country music traditions while eschewing its conservatism. And it’s borne out across the new album’s ten tracks, first-person narratives where women act on their desires and occasionally instigate their own heartbreaks; take ownership of their shortcomings, but don’t allow themselves to be cowed or shamed. It’s a raw, emotionally acute record that lives up to Shires’ principles without ever feeling like it’s trying to settle a score or prove a point. It’s also the best and boldest music she’s made yet, the very fine Highwomen album included.
Part of that boldness may come from a new collaboration with Lawrence Rothman, who produces the album and leads a small troupe of musicians that includes Jason Isbell, who happens to be Shires’ husband, on guitar. (A boon crew of backup singers includes Maren Morris and Brittany Spencer.) Rothman brings a different kind of weather than Dave Cobb, the go-to producer in the Shires-Isbell household, whose preference for austerity rendered The Highwomen warm but maybe a tad dry. Rothman supplies a more layered and atmospheric mix, most evident in the whirlpool of vocal harmonies that bubble up during “Fault Lines.” As for Shires, she contributes some of her most adventurous and exploratory songs yet, including excursions into punch-drunk, horn-drenched R&B (“Stupid Love”) and echoing, noir-ish pop (“Bad Behavior”). These songs are lush and inviting, but there’s also some real in-the-red intensity here: Opener “Hawk for the Dove” is a blazing rock-and-roll epic, featuring a searing fiddle solo from Shires. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s “Don’t Be Alarmed,” where Shires’ warm drawl is accompanied by little more than Isbell’s finger-picking.
The title of that last song could also serve as keen advice to fans, particularly those who have a deep emotional investment in the Shires-Isbell marriage: Following the brazen desire of “Hawk for the Dove,” most of this album lives in a space of relational instability. “I know the cost of flight is landing,” Shires sighs in the title song, an acknowledgement that to love someone may mean riding high on waves of ecstasy, but also entails the risk of crashing and burning. Several songs here take stock of a committed relationship that’s hit a rough patch, none with greater intensity than “Fault Lines”: “You can keep the car and the house / We both know that none of that was keeping me anyhow.” “Empty Cups,” sung in Shires’ most Dolly-esque lilt, is a little gentler but no less heartbreaking: “Maybe I was asking for a little too much / To keep the newness from wearing off.” Shires hits the mark of vulnerability that never quite curdles into self-pity or self-loathing, and she mostly avoids the temptation toward pat answers: Loving someone for a long time is hard, it is risky, and the newness does wear off. (“You won’t make it any better with those throwaway lines,” she counsels in one song, though she could just as easily be admonishing herself.)
Maybe that’s what makes it feel anticlimactic when Shires ends the album with “Everything Has its Time,” a song that seems like it’s searching for a tidy summary that the rest of the album has carefully avoided. It’s also true that the rawness of the album’s first half gives way to a more playful second side, memorable more for the adventurous arrangements than for emotional directness. That will either feel like a slight letdown or a needed respite, depending on how well you can weather the turbulence of the earlier songs. Regardless, Take it Like a Man has the swagger and the confidence of an artist who knows she’s struck a fertile vein, not only living up to her own principles but creating a rich, resonant, and honest album in the process.
Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2022 | Part 1.