With the release of her seventh solo album, Take It Like a Man, Amanda Shires—like Hamilton’s Eliza Schuyler—puts herself squarely back into the narrative. “I want people to know that it’s ok to be a 40-year-old woman and be more than just a character in somebody else’s life.” Shires recently told radio personality Andy Chanley in an interview with Southern California’s 88.5 FM. It’s a provocative description of an album in which she emotes unashamed desire, displays strength in vulnerability, and waxes philosophical on the cyclical nature of time.
Similar to the experience of many women within a patriarchally defined culture, Amanda Shires finds her story too often subsumed within the narrative arc woven around her singer-songwriter husband, Jason Isbell. Shires is an essential member of Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, and she is the ostensible subject of some of his most intense and tender love songs such as “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires”. Some have called the couple Nashville’s new “Johnny and June” a nod to taking up the mantle of a legendary musical power couple and an unintended revelation of the implied hierarchy of whose story is primary.
Within the span of the ten tracks on Take It Like a Man, Amanda Shires embraces full ownership of her voice, both her authorial one as a songwriter and her physical one as a singer. One can reflect much on the honest vulnerability expressed within these songs, most of which Shires shares emerged from a particular fraught season in her and Jason Isbell’s marriage. Several tracks within this album deal with heartache, pain, and disappointment within relationships. But, the album begins with a forceful, confident expression of agency.
“Hawk For the Dove” opens Take It Like a Man with a slow-burning smolder, an unabashed, unashamed declaration of female desire. As Shires shared with 88.5 FM’s Chanley, “The song deals with emotions that turn prey into predator.” It’s a show of strength framing the album and throwing the gauntlet down within a culture and a music industry that continues to commodify female desire within the confines of the male gaze. Shires’ passion and voice subvert the role of a passive object in another’s narrative as she declares her full subjectivity, cognizant of how it’s perceived as subversive. Musically, this eruption of passion occurs in her electrified violin that expresses the menace of a devouring desire.
The title song contains brilliant poetic turns of phrases tracing the inherent risk in relationships (“I know the cost of flight is landing”) and the struggle to articulate a melancholic mood (“I need more words for blue”). It also contains a subversive undercurrent playing with the meanings attached to the stoic advice to “take it like a man”. Her recitation of the line exudes a strength that exceeds mere stoicism and isn’t a cosplay caricature of a form of cultural masculinity. Careful attention to her articulation in closing the song reveals that she states that she will “take it like a-man-da”, reiterating that she will bear and move through heartbreak on her terms.
The emotional core of this album lies within the fifth track, “Fault Lines”. This song was an inadvertent genesis for the new record. Shires revealed to journalist Lori Liebig of The Nashville Scene that she wrote the track during a season of marital disconnect with her husband. She poured her emotional state into the song and sent it to Isbell, where he initially left it unplayed. She then sent it to singer-songwriter Lawrence Rothman with whom she had recently struck up a professional and personal friendship after they reached out to her to collaborate with background vocals on one of their albums. Rothman encouraged her to enter the studio to record it. Amanda Shires’ positive experience working with Rothman on the song’s recording led to the development of an entire album with Rothman as producer.
From their collaboration emerges what is perhaps Amanda Shires’ finest album. Emotionally Take It Like a Man interlaces heartache and disappointment with the profoundly temporal joys of new beginnings and the aches of desire. Musically, the album builds on her mastery of Americana with a rock ‘n’ roll edge with masterful pop compositions that nod to countrypolitan and 1970s singer-songwriter soft rock. The horns and piano intro to “Lonely at Night” are reminiscent of classic Burt Bacharach compositions brought to life by Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield. Thematically, Take It Like a Man situates itself within the shadow cast by Joni Mitchell‘s Blue and Carole King‘s Tapestry, both groundbreaking albums by female singer-songwriters unafraid of upending conventional expectations for women in music through vulnerable, confessional songs in play with self-confident expressions of sensuality.
Added to the strengths of this record is the collaborative community of artists working with and supporting Amanda Shires’ project. The convergence of Shires’ talent with Lawrence Rothman’s production yields a musically complex, frank, confessional album. Brittney Spencer and Maren Morris flesh out the depth of Shires’ songs, plumbing the fractured heart or expressing the risky thrill of the sensual appetites. Amanda Shires’ partner, Jason Isbell, is also present throughout the album but not intrusive.
Isbell adds his virtuosity with the guitar on offerings that are in conversation with Shires’ voice without ever overwhelming or displacing it. He counts in the intro to “Don’t Be Alarmed”, a song Shires wrote in conjunction with Isbell, Liz Rose, and Ruston Kelly, where she traces the inevitability of heartbreak from a stance of resilience and not defeat (“I’m losing my balance / I’m not losing my mind”). Isbell lingers as an ephemeral background presence within this album’s narrative portrait Amanda Shires is painting. Her unflinching honesty can cut to the quick, potentially disrupting fandom that projects their hopes onto an idealized couple to distract from the inevitable cycle of euphoria and disappointment that are the mundane building blocks of all human relations.
It can land hard. Within “Fault Lines” is a gut punch of a verse, “And the character / You wrote yourself out to be / The flagship / All part of my fooling.” It references Isbell’s song “Flagship” from Something More Than Free, where the narrator observes other couples who have drifted apart and passionately promises his partner never to let things get that way. The convergence of the two songs is a body blow, an artistic reminder that we often cannot cash the emotional checks we write. Shires and Isbell have indicated in interviews that any potential personal ramifications would not censor their artistic expressions. “If the song is good, it goes on the album.”
But make no mistake, this is an Amanda Shires album from start to finish, infused with the strength of her voice and insight. It is intensely personal and frustrates any attempt to read it as a tabloid confessional. Shires gestured to the truth of art that always exceeds the straightforward literal in the album press on the ATO Records website. “Everything on the record is autobiographical. I didn’t hold anything back. Then, if the details were boring, I infused other stories,” she said. “Like my grandad said, if your story’s not good enough just make it better.”
In Take It Like a Man, Amanda Shires fully claims her voice and solidifies her growing status as one of Nashville’s more talented musicians and songwriters. She’s fully fleshing out her own path and story, the main protagonist in her narrative. Through her vulnerability and strength, she offers her listeners a path to realistically embrace the cycle of ache and joy in relationships, all within the confines of what might be one of the finer albums to come out of Nashville this year.