It’s hard to say what’s more surprising on Amanda Shires’s “To the Sunset”: The airy, feedback-laden beginning, or the emotional sucker punch of a finale. “Parking Lot Pirouette” starts with a glitchy collage of noise before making way for Shires, as her voice bubbles and crinkles as if she’s underwater, sounding unlike anything she’s recorded up to this point. Nine tracks later, “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” recounts with reporter’s detail a grisly small-town suicide, sending the record off on a bone-chilling note.
Both bookends are unexpected for different reasons, but in context of the entire product, taking risks and packing punches are what define Shires’s fifth solo effort, released Friday. Despite her rootsy back catalog and her lead fiddler gig in husband Jason Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit, Shires hasn’t limited herself to the expectations that come with the label “female Americana artist.” Instead, with assistance from producer Dave Cobb, she’s throwing a slew of new genres, instruments, and effects at the wall and seeing what sticks, which makes for a record that’s hard to categorize but undeniably fun to dig into.
Shires’s delicate warble might evoke thoughts of Dolly or Emmylou, but the sequenced drum machines and jangly guitars on the lead single “Leave It Alone,” or the synth-y, melancholy waltz of “Mirror, Mirror” are closer in sound to Cocteau Twins or the Smiths. But it’s not completely out-with-the-old: “Swimmer,” a sleepy folk ballad from 2011’s “Carrying Lightning,” has been dusted off and reworked from scratch, now featuring a mid-tempo rock groove, a more confident vocal performance from Shires, and a whole lot more reverb.
Considering Shires’s MFA in poetry, it’s no surprise that her storytelling and verbal imagery are among the album’s greatest strengths. There’s a genuine laugh to be had on “Break Out the Champagne,” a tongue-in-cheek romp where Shires gossips about a friend’s epiphany over a dull ex-lover: “It’s no one’s fault, the heart wants what it wants/And then she thought, ‘I’m rock and roll, and you’re golf.’ ”
Other tracks like “Charms,” an unflinching and unromanticized account of motherhood and its struggles, show that Shires can present big ideas as easily as she can crack a joke. As the mother of a toddler herself, Shires confesses her own anxieties of both matching and surpassing her own mother, singing with a fragile vibrato, “I’m daring to do what she couldn’t bring herself to do/Isn’t it just like a daughter to make a fool of you?” With both her words and music, Shires isn’t holding herself back on “To the Sunset,” and though the left turns might take some getting used to for old fans, her growing conviction in herself as a songwriter and frontwoman is enough reason to stick around.
Robert Steiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.