One of the highlights of Amanda Shires’ new album To the Sunset, “Break Out the Champagne” was inspired in part by an in-flight emergency on a plane. Shires turned potential death into a three-minute chunk of black humor, captured in the chorus: “Break out the champagne / Everybody look out below / Let’s get on with the shit show / Here goes a toast… adios!” The song swirls various personal calamities into a worldview. It would be easy enough to let an album cohere around a catchy sardonic vision, but Shires is no more willing to do that than she is to actually record an expected Americana album (as her work will likely be categorized). Instead, she puts together a complex vision of a complicated life, embedded in music drawing from various traditions into a single sound.
If Shires does have a mantra for the album, it might be closer to the message of “Take on the Dark”. Her realism stands out – nothing is won, nothing is guaranteed to be okay – but resistance is certainly not futile. Shires’ acknowledgment that “it’s okay to fall apart” brings an odd comfort to it. Above a driving indie rock sound, Shires moves into the darkness of the world with her listener, not to minimize the hurt, but face it sensibly. Life can be challenging, and platitudes never work.
Those two songs make up only a small part of the world Shires develops on To the Sunset. Love stories play their part, and Shires writes the memorable phrases to keep hers outside the norm. On the album’s first track, “Parking Lot Pirouette” provides one of those unforgettable phrases. When Shires performs the title phrases, she uses the moment to unbalance her beau: “You said, ‘You won’t be gettin’ far before you turn around’ / I did a parking lot pirouette / I said, ‘You’re right, I’m not done with you yet.'” In one moment, Shires details a pivotal moment in a romance and asserts herself as the one unexpectedly in control of the movement. The song, though, avoids the power issues that might imply, capturing instead the joy and doubt of “holding on too tightly”, Shires bringing a constellation of feelings into one transcendent track as her singer gazes at actual stars.
The rowdy, hard-rocking “Eve’s Daughter” tells a troubling story with strong formal technique. Shires drops just enough details to make the song specific, and makes the best of internal rhyme with phrases like “When I started to show, he proposed” and “A lot of working late / a little Section Eight” to describe one’s woman fall from youthful energy into a social trap. Shires manages to be unapologetic yet empathetic all at once. With the big guitar hooks and a sense of a bar getting rattled, the story makes a statement that doesn’t preach but doesn’t equivocate.
As the album closes with a “regular morning” that turns into something quite different, it becomes apparent that Shires creates her own world with great insight into our own. “Wasn’t I Paying Attention?” ends shockingly, not only in terms of the plot but with the song cutting out before the conflagration. The story, it says, isn’t in the flame, and Shires knows where to look and how to circumscribe her own tales. Musically, she does something different, bringing what she needs to each song, breaking away from genre into something that you could shelve on about any rack, and probably should.