Take It Like A Man
ATO Records

Amanda Shires has long been striving to bring complexity to the subject of gender in a conservative genre. A staple in Nashville since moving from her native Texas in 2004, she broke through with 2016’s intimately observational My Piece of Land, reflecting on her pregnancy and the bittersweet realities of stay-at-home parenting. In 2019 she co-founded the country supergroup the Highwomen alongside Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby as a direct response to their frustrations with country radio sidelining women.

Alongside her demands for greater racial and gender inclusivity in the genre, she’s also been frank on the matter of abortion, not least with “The Problem,” a 2020 duet on the subject with musician-husband Jason Isbell (since re-recorded as “Our Problem” with a notable cast of guests: Cyndi Lauper, Angie Stone, Linda Perry, Peaches). Although fans have heralded her as a punk kind of country artist, for Shires her progressive stance comes as a matter of fact, as she asserted in one interview: “Fuck it,” she told US magazine. “Who needs a career if we have no rights to our bodies?”

Shires’ seventh album may well be her biggest “fuck it” moment yet, motivated by a desire to present an empowered and multifaceted picture of womanhood. It’s one she largely fulfills. Opener “Hawk for the Dove” subverts music that sounds like an old-timey movie score by pushing against antiquated standards of female sexuality. Shires, 40, recently told an interviewer she wanted to prove that women her age can be “more than just a character in somebody else’s life”; here, she sings with raunchy reassurance, “Come on, put pressure on me / I won’t break.” Elsewhere, it’s her powerful vocals that assert her strength. On the title track, Shires digs deep to unleash a chorus that swells with each hefty, determined repetition: “I know the cost of flight is landing / But I know I can take it like a man,” she sings in an epic crescendo that nods to Queen.

This is rousing stuff, and with indie-pop producer Lawrence Rothman on hand, her vivid, intentionally raw fiddle-playing is balanced with expressions of her softer side, seemingly taking inspiration from peers who are blazing trails beyond country’s traditional bounds. The warm Motown horns of “Stupid Love” channel the playfulness of Kacey Musgraves, while the sad-yet-soulful easy listening of “Lonely at Night” shares a kinship with Adele’s 30. “Empty Cups” is pure Dolly Parton, and makes up for its predictable melody with well-turned couplets worthy of a soap opera: “You’re leaving now through the hole of an argument,” she sings. “I guess for a while you’ve been looking for the exit.” Backed by her Highwomen bandmate Morris on guest vocals, it’s a torrid breakup song of diverging paths, rich in storytelling tradition.

In her extended bid to prove that the roles of wife, woman and mother need not be prescriptive, Shires does occasionally overplay her point. “Here He Comes” aims for sassy eye-rolls about an unpredictable lover, but its chorus is uninspired, simmered down to a cheesy mid-tempo plod. “Bad Behavior” builds on the same sinful-lustful dynamic that many of her sexier songs employ, but the jarring trap-rap mutterings in the middle distract from the steamily mischievous tone of her voice as she teases a sorry-not-sorry one night stand: “Maybe I like strangers,” she sings. “So what if I do?”

“Fault Lines” is similarly direct but far more surprising. An exploration of a difficult time in her marriage, it’s starkly honest and strikingly simple, capturing her psychological thunderstorms during a moment of doubt: “You could say it’s all my fault / We just couldn’t get along,” she sings. “And if anyone asks, I’ll say what’s true / And really, it’s ‘I don’t know.’” She hints at a resolution on “Stupid Love”: “You were smiling so much you kissed me with your teeth / I thought, ‘Long live the unknown machine.’”

If there’s a takeaway to be had, it’s this sense of embracing life’s “unknown machine.” At times overzealous but always sincere, Shires subverts the idea of “taking it like a man” as one of rote strength or stoicism. While there’s toughness and discerning here, she’s also captivatingly vulnerable as she addresses, without apology, how a person’s whims, desires and autonomy may fluctuate throughout a life. Rather than a source of fear, she seizes every one of these character-building risks and possibilities yet to come. “You might be my ruining,” she sings on “Stupid Love.” “I lean into it.”

This review originally appeared in The Guardian