Plenty of musicians take great pains to create distance between their lyrics and their personal lives. Amanda Shires is not one of them. Each of the 10 songs on her new album, Take It Like a Man, comes directly from her own experience, a point she emphasizes in the press notes for the album. “Everything on the record is autobiographical. I didn’t hold anything back,” Shires said.
That’s tricky enough for someone who lives a fairly public life in her own right. Add in that Shires is married to someone who’s also famous (that would be Jason Isbell), that the bulk of these songs trace the bumpy contours of their marriage and that he plays guitar on seven of them, and you can’t help but wonder if their bond is uncommonly resilient, or whether this year’s family vacation is still on. (If so, the coast of Maine is nice.) Then again, it’s no secret that relationships are complicated, even if you’re not a public figure. Not everyone has the guts to hang all that laundry on the line in full view, but Shires has always had a tendency to say what’s on her mind, however bluntly it may come across.
She doesn’t offer many soft landings on Take It Like a Man. It’s a fraught album, full of thorny feelings and barbed lyrics. It’s also her most emotionally resonant collection of songs since her 2011 LP Carrying Lightning. It’s not quite right to say that she was naive back then, but Shires, who turned 40 this year, has covered some miles since. She got married, had a daughter and lost a subsequent ectopic pregnancy. She has kept busy recording, touring on her own and with Isbell’s band, and forming her Grammy-winning country supergroup The Highwomen—not to mention struggling through a pandemic that threatened her livelihood. No wonder it hasn’t been easy to find a balance.
For all her strong feelings on Take It Like a Man, Shires remains a poet at heart. If her lyrics here are often forceful, they’re also always evocative and sometimes even elegant, whether she’s revisiting her fondness for bird imagery or seeking the thrill that accompanies a new relationship. Eventually, inevitably, that feeling transforms into something else as people get comfortable, or busy, or distracted. That change is at the root of many of these songs. Though Shires is sometimes mournful and subdued, she’s just as often trying to provoke a reaction, to recapture the spark she longs for by setting a fire and watching what happens. The results can be startlingly sensuous: She’s yearning for strangers while thinking of him on “Bad Behavior,” and letting her imagination wander into the adult section on album opener “Hawk for the Dove.” “I see you talking but I can’t hear a thing / Too caught up in the way I want you rolling over me,” she sings, over a wash of moody guitars and piano.
Musically, these songs are often terse and filled with tension that emerges in squiggles of violin on the title track; dark, minor-key piano and a slow-motion wave of overdriven electric guitar on “Fault Lines”; or the catch in her throat when she starts to sing on album closer “Everything Has Its Time.” Shires has always had that quaver in her voice, to one degree or another, but she’s rarely used it as effectively as she does here. She lets her voice fall almost into a whisper at the end of some of the lines on the bereft “Empty Cups,” while Maren Morris adds a touch of steel with her resolute backing vocals. The quaver offers a hint of Shires’ vulnerability on the sardonic and deceptively jaunty tune “Here He Comes,” and suggests she’s doing her best to hold herself together when she sends her voice high on “Don’t Be Alarmed.”
For all her obvious skill as a writer and musician, Shires’ albums have sometimes given the impression that she’s had something to prove. Though her musical partnership with Isbell is very often (and to great benefit) collaborative, two creative people living under the same roof are bound to be competitive, too, regardless of whether they’re conscious of it—or, maybe, whether they’re willing to acknowledge it. Take It Like a Man is Shires’ first album in a while that feels fully self-contained, as if she decided that the only person she needs to impress with these songs is herself. By removing herself from competition with anyone else, Shires emerges as a clear winner. Take It Like a Man is a worthy prize.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.
Revisit Shires’ 2020 Paste session below.