Coming off of 2018’s To the Sunset, I’ll admit I wasn’t so much disappointed by Amanda Shires’ breakaway from country and folk-inspired Americana as I was by how the experimental rock and electronic flourishes on that album didn’t work better, at least for me. It was mostly an issue of foundation, where it felt like both she and Dave Cobb were entering into unfamiliar territory and not sure how to meet in the middle, which is why I was a bit more curious about her follow-up – this time without Cobb and reportedly inspired by marriage troubles with husband Jason Isbell, who, yes, still plays guitar here in spite of that.
And as for the result, I’m of two minds on it. On one hand, Take It Like a Man is musically less interesting and complex than its predecessor, but it’s also much cleaner and more tightly refined and consistent in scope and mood in a way that lands better for me. On the other hand, I’m not sure if the overall improvement take enough leaps toward true greatness or something truly unique for Shires in sound or scope, which is why it’s another difficult album of hers to discuss.
Thankfully, while I’ll likely always miss and prefer her earlier sound moving forward, at least everything here sounds much better balanced across the board, with a lot of that smoked-out, hazy texture finally having the proper space to breathe and accentuate the mix. It’s a familiar technique I’ve heard implemented better elsewhere – using space and atmosphere to denote fractures within the context and feeling intentionally distanced as a whole – but with the right amount of texture it can still work really well: the ragged smolder in the guitar work and piano (and out-of-nowhere violin for a few seconds) on “Hawk For the Dove” cuts through phenomenally; the ghostly swell of the slow-trickling “Don’t Be Alarmed” provides a nice slow-burn; the twinkling spark in the strings of “Empty Cups” manages to sound huge while keeping the melancholic focus intact; and I love those beautiful, old-school-sounding horns anchoring “Lonely At Night.”
Granted, it can still feel melodically undercooked as a whole, without a lot more of a driving tune like the intensity of the opening track and not enough to satisfy in the way of hooks or distinctive grooves, where the wide open space informs the context but doesn’t push hard enough with it. That’s probably a good segue into the writing, too, given that, pushing aside the background context, the poetry is still very good and detailed but can feel lacking in tying everything together, noting the fractures in bits and pieces but never showing where they go from there.
It’s an album where you can see how far to the brink she and Isbell were pushed within their relationship on tracks like “Empty Cups,” “Lonely At Night,” or especially “Fault Lines” … but I don’t know if it’s the album feeling muted in greater instrumental dynamics or if it’s an issue of feeling underwritten, but it can feel a bit tonally inconsistent and unfinished as a whole, content with coasting more on muted, hazy atmosphere over something with a bit more ragged bite and firepower. I mean, I love how “Lonely at Night” sounds, but it’s a track where she chooses to confront her partner over their distance, and the languid vibe feels a bit off-putting. And that’s before mentioning more out-of-place tracks like the conventional “bad boy” hook-up of “Here He Comes” with the slightly sloppy swing groove, or the twinkling “uh ohs” that try and give way to a potentially dangerous hook-up without bringing much else; it’s an album that can feel stretched despite the shorter runtime. Even still, if she’s going to continue to push further away from her earlier work, this is a more well-executed pivot than her previous album; it’s still cutting a bit lower in presentation and writing than I’d prefer, though.
- Favorite tracks: “Hawk For the Dove,” “Empty Cups,” “Fault Lines,” “Lonely At Night”
- Least favorite track: “Here He Comes”