Review: Shovels & Rope Attempt to Achieve Optimism

Shovels & Rope/Manticore/Dualtone
3.5 out of Five Stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Shovels & Rope’s new album Manticore starts out with a certain degree of insistence. It’s a somewhat ironic way to kick off a set of songs that mark their tenth anniversary as a duo. On the other hand, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have never exactly fit the mold of the typically well-defined duo. Rather, they ply earnest emotion and use it to transform their songs into honest expressions of their sincerest sentiment.

That’s the case here, with songs that run the gamut from the dynamic drive that typifies opening tracks “Domino” and “The Show,” to the slow repose invested in the decidedly desperate “Bleed Me.” What gave me away? I will remain yours to drain, they moan on the latter while expressing a threadbare exasperation. Ultimately, it’s a harrowing encounter.

So too, “Happy Birthday Who,” a decidedly downcast lament told from the perspective of a homeless individual who’s become a virtual non-entity in the eyes of every passerby, casts a light on the unpleasant realities encountered by those living on the fringes of society. Here again, the focus is both harrowing and heartbreaking in equal measure.

I wasn’t born to be anything
People pass me,
They look at the ground

There’s more despair found in “Crown Victoria,” a tenacious tale lamenting the inevitably of change and the fleeting essence of life in general. Driven by a steady thump and a persistent pulse, it still manages to embrace optimism through the need for perseverance and determination, even when the odds seem to suggest otherwise. The chorus, a repeated refrain that insists I don’t wanna wait, serves as an ode to optimism, even when the end result seems far from certain.

Likewise, the solemn piano ballad tellingly-titled “Anchor” finds its focus in a woman named Lillie, whose dream to be an actress was thwarted by the weight of reality. Like so many, she tries to make the best of the circumstances she’s forced to contend with. The desperation and desire found in “No Man’s Land,” sung from the perspective of a soldier trapped in the trenches during the First World War, the sorrowful “Divide and Conquer,” and the darker designs of “The Human Race” share similarly somber sentiments. Somehow though, the pair still manage to balance resilience with remorse, even when odds and adversity seem stacked against them.

It’s little surprise that Hearst and Trent have taken this edgy approach given the dread and despair heaped on the world over the course of the past two years. With Manticore, they attempt to make some sense of it all.

Photo by Leslie Ryan McKellar

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