Amanda Shires: To The Sunset

Amanda Shires
To The Sunset
(Silver Knife/Thirty Tigers)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Maybe moving forward is my only ambition/ and I never let myself turn around” admits Amanda Shires on “Charms.” It’s a confirmation that on this, her fifth album, she is determined to try something different.

Look no further than the cover photo. The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist’s previous release showed a plain, simple, unadorned picture of her face without much, if any, makeup. Contrast it with this one where her blurred body is swirling in lavish purple and whites with wild splotches of blood-red flowers in her hair and matching lipstick. The extreme visual change makes it seem like another person.

Perhaps not surprisingly the music follows suit. She bring back producer Dave Cobb, who has worked extensively with husband Jason Isbell. He pushes intriguing sonic boundaries, starting with the backward guitar sounds opening the first track “Parking Lot Pirouette.” Isbell and Cobb (alternating on bass and guitar) also appear on every tune bringing a consistency of vision to Shires’ darkest and most riveting set yet.

From the intense, perhaps unrequited passion of “Swimmer” (“I swear I’d drown just to have you”) to questioning her internal compass on “White Feather” (“It’s easy to be quiet and easy to be silent/ when you’re afraid of what you don’t understand”) and “Wasn’t Paying Attention,” the closing tragic story of an addict suddenly attempting suicide in graphic detail, these songs are not for the squeamish.

Vocally Shires falls somewhere between Tift Merritt and Neko Case, two singers also unafraid to bare their souls in songs that often subtly imply their meanings in impressionistic lyrical poetry. Churning guitars and understated psychedelics in “Leave It Alone” give way to a Petty-ish riff for “Break Out the Champagne” and the full-on hard-rocking urging the pounding “Eve’s Daughter.” The latter, with its distorted guitar, is the loudest, most aggressive Shires has gotten and even features a rare fiddle solo. She also rocks out on the cautionary “Take on the Dark,” singing, “And take on the dark/ without letting it take over” atop Isbell’s tough chiming, feed-backed guitars and churning drums. The mood changes to reflective on the insecure concepts of “Mirror, Mirror,” where Shires acknowledges what seems to be an adversary that is “so proud of her body/so much so I’m unsure of my own.”

The often brooding music, lyrics and production of To The Sunset is a perfect example of the restless Shires “moving forward.” It’s her boldest, toughest and at times most melancholy release, challenging herself and her audience, to look ahead, not back.