Shovels & Rope 2022
Photo: Leslie Ryan McKellar / Courtesy of All Eyes Media

Shovels & Rope Go into Battle With ‘Manticore’

Messiness is a large part of the charm of Shovels & Rope’s latest album, Manticore. The unpolished veneer suggests the authenticity of the material.

Shovels & Rope
Dualtone Records
18 February 2022

The new Shovels & Rope album, Manticore, is comprised of disparate songs that have no outward connection to each other. The cuts vary significantly in scope, subject, and intensity without a cohesive theme. There’s a pleasant raggedness to the whole affair. The duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst often sing simultaneously but not in a precise way and rarely in harmony. They often seem to be shouting at each other. And when they take solos, the results are often more powerful and uneven than when they duet. This messiness is a large part of the album’s charm. The unpolished veneer suggests the authenticity of the material.  

According to the press notes, the songs were written assuming that they would include almost nothing but an acoustic guitar, piano, and their two voices. However, when COVID hit, Shovels & Rope were accorded more time to work on the record. The instrumentals are still spare and sparse. The voices are the most prominent feature.  

“I get a little hazy on the details,” Hearst sings on “Collateral Damage” as she opines about the role of a woman in terms of her family and career choices. The lyrics can be oblique, but her passion comes through the rawness of her vocals. A piano bangs in the background for effect. Trent quietly sings underneath to outline the singularity of the woman’s voice. The hazy details Hearst offers suggest the narrator is a human cannonball at the circus or at least perceives her real-life situation as one. The disheveled musical approach works as a metaphor for the danger involved—not for the protagonist but those around her. She is singing about “Collateral Damage”. The moral is that a woman chasing her dreams may unintentionally end up hurting those she’s closest to.

Trent sings lead and offers a first-person story about a man of few means that seems to have no place in society and whose mental health is questionable on “Happy Birthday Who?” It’s a tearjerker of a tale of a person with no friends and few resources but is “singing like a toothache and am smiling just because”.  When paired with songs like “Collateral Damage”, one can see Shovels & Rope offers the particular details of one’s condition (if one is male or female, rich or poor, etc.), but the diversity of the individuals suggests this doesn’t matter. As the title of the final song says, the album is about “The Human Race”. We all are fucked.

Some songs have recognizable characters, such as the lead track “Domino” about James Dean. It begins with the date and particulars about his car crash, but then has Dean’s spirit wonder why those living have made him into a symbol (“I’m the mood of your broody generation / I’m you / I’m what you’re chasing / I’m the face the Free Wheelin’ Dylan’s making”). Dean’s comments are wryly humorous, especially for a dead guy. The music is revved up and hot, like Dean’s car before the crash.

It’s not clear if some of the songs are confessional and concern Trent and Hearst’s marriage. There seem to be personal statements on songs like “Divide & Conquer” and “Bleed Me”, but they could be personae instead. As music, the actual truth doesn’t matter as much as the emotional weight they carry. Two of the best cuts seem oddly placed if still belonging to the collection because the songs don’t match the rest: “No Man’s Land” about the World War I Christmas truce on the front lines, and “Anchor”, the tale of an ambitious showgirl.  

The album’s title refers to a mythological creature made up of a human head, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. It’s said to be a vicious, killing machine that can defeat groups of animals, including humans, more than one at a time to satisfy its hunger and bloodlust. I don’t know why Shovels & Rope named their record Manticore, but it suggests the band’s ambition. The mythic Manticore is said to be unbeatable in battle.

RATING 7 / 10