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Take It Like A Man (ATO)

THERE’S A LOT OF GOOD THINGS in this set. Big sweeping dramas, where strings aren’t just there to sweeten; deep soul numbers, where everything is worn on the outside and served with the brass; mid-tempo songs that walk, but never run, through thickets of conflicting feelings and elegant settings; intimate country songs that cast a muted but nonetheless clear light on equally clear lyrics.

And then there’s the really good stuff: the way the rawness of the character studies is presented musically in subtle, sophisticated ways that never undersell their innate value; the sense that the honesty here isn’t performative or vengeful, just released from the shackles; the manner in which melodies rise up and hold with a group that is simultaneously light and unyielding.

It's such a balanced album that one of the best things on it – on some days, the very best thing on it – Lonely At Night, turns up as the penultimate track, but rather than feel like it’s buried there, it feels like everything has been setting us on the path to it. Then the last song, Everything Has Its Time, becomes the kind of denouement that washes over your bruised weariness not as a solution but as a cue for some to let go and let be.

Lonely At Night is credited to Amanda Shires and Peter Levin, but come on, surely it’s a Bacharach/David song hitherto undiscovered, and I refuse to accept it isn’t penned by them. Not just because of the halfway to forlorn/halfway from home horn and the arrangement’s accretion of small dramas that merge into a radiant heat by song’s end, but because of the impact of lyrics which arrive with simplicity but leave with two or three layers peeled back, and a lead vocal which dances along the line between the potent plainness of Dionne Warwick and the impactful temptation to lose control of Dusty Springfield.

The song also encapsulates the lyrical foundations of the album: Shires frankly dissecting a marriage that is overflowing with love and deep-seated connection but also banging against flotsam and jetsam of complicated lives that could at any point, at any moment of lapsed attention, pierce below the waterline. Or maybe already has.

The way things aren’t said (out of respect, out of pity, out of reality getting in the way of intentions), the questions that arise in your mind unbidden but unshakeable, the sometimes stumbling but still worth attempting moves to repair (or at least prepare the ground for repair), all figure in some form across the album. And at no time do they ever feel anything but direct and truthful.

None of that would matter as much, nor hit home as much, if the music didn’t feel as honest as the words. And it does. The blend of tear-stained mountain song and downtown bar heartbreaker in Empty Cups comes as naturally as the smoke curling up around a front of stage microphone effect of Bad Behavior’s strict-time soul; the intense torch of the title track doesn’t overplay, but then the tense Hawk For The Dove doesn’t shy away from the edge in both lyrics and febrile guitar.

It's not clear if it’s more experience (this far into her career mind you, with her last appearance on this page in 2018 with To The Sunset ), the success of one of her side-projects, the all-power “supergroup”, The Highwomen (one of whom, Natalie Hembry, has co-written Everything Has Its Time) who released a self-titled album in 2019, or the pungency of the personal experiences which underpin these songs, but Take It Like A Man looks, sounds and feels like a more confident, more complete, and most definitely strong Amanda Shires.

That’s a very good thing.


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