When Cary Ann Hearst was asked by American Songwriter about where the new Shovels & Rope album Manticore stands amidst their very impressive catalog, she first asked her musical and life partner Michael Trent how many albums they had released to that point. When told this was album number six, Hearst launched into a bit of tongue-in-cheek journalist speak.
“This is a solid sixth effort,” she says. “This is a solid sixth effort by a band that is this deep into their career, where they could easily just go home and not write any more songs at all. I think this will stand as one of the top sixth-album releases in Americana history. Stand this up to everybody else’s sixth record and see where it is.”
When asked the same question, Trent didn’t miss a beat. “It feels like a solid sixth.”
While they may have been having a little bit of fun, Hearst and Trent were actually quite accurate, if maybe a bit modest, with their assessment. Manticore is the work of artists who are operating with the confidence of established success. But it also brims with the boundless ambition of two people still striving to make each release a masterpiece.
The album throws a curveball by opening with the rollicking “Domino” before settling into a collection of midtempo tracks with a lot on their minds and some aching in their hearts. In some songs, Hearst and Trent create winning character sketches of individuals in difficult circumstances. And in others, they dive into their own relationship in a strikingly honest fashion.
“The joke we make about the record is when we got to the COVID quarantine, we already had these songs about how f’d up we were,” Hearst laughs. “We’ve been growing up together. We’ve made a business and a family and a marriage, this dynamic life together. All the stuff that happens to everybody else happens to us too. We took some of that and made up stories with other people, with that as the crux, our own experience informing these stories, these truth bombs.”
The duo originally thought of recording the songs in their simplest forms, but world events indirectly encouraged them to add some sonic embellishments where it felt warranted. “We ended up somehow with some extra time on our hands,” Trent says, winkingly referring to the pandemic. “We did have a notion that was pretty stripped down. A lot of the songs lend themselves to be less produced. We thought that we might end up with something like that. We had some time and we just sort of chose some extra things to add here and there.”
Hearst explained that inhabiting other characters whose lives have taken a hard turn felt natural to them in the songwriting process. “Michael and I are hyper-aware of the goodness and badness in our human nature,” she says. “It’s easy to feel the dignity of the lesser characters, and it’s easy to have less trust of the holier characters. It’s just because we feel humbled by our own shortcomings.”
The vocal harmonies for which the duo is known are employed beautifully throughout the album, embellishing the powerful emotions within each song, from the parental vulnerability displayed in “Bleed Me” to the gentle lament of a homeless man in “Happy Birthday Who.” “I think it is one of those things that happens naturally,” Trent says of the blend. “We’ve been singing together for so long that it’s easy for one of us to glom onto the other one. And nobody really knows who’s leading or who’s following. We just sort of do it.”
On the showstopping “Divide & Conquer,” those vocals are used in service of a warts-and-all portrait of marriage. “I think of the song as the nature of the changing strength of a marriage,” Hearst says of what was behind the track. “You’re riding along, and you’re like, ‘Oh man, this is different than it was before.’ It definitely feels like a different order of operations. At the end of that song, you’re not sure if something has gone awry, but it’s actually galvanized. Were we looking out at how things could go terribly wrong? Well, we have a really great marriage, but even us, we’ve been there.”
Manticore closes out with “The Human Race,” which paints a somewhat bleak picture of the state of the world but also leaves us with sage advice: “Love everyone you meet.” “I think the way that it worked out was perfect,” Trent says. “We weren’t sure about song order and we weren’t sure about the bleakness-versus-hope pie chart on the record. It does end where the melody kind of does the right thing and the lyric does the right thing. And it seemed like one of those moments that made me very happy at the end of the recording process and putting the whole thing together. It was like, oh yeah, that’s a good note to end on.”
Jokes about “solid sixths” aside, Trent sums up this latest Shovels & Rope stunner by opining on the musical journey that he and Hearst have taken to this point, how it’s all starting to feel effortless in the best possible way. “I feel like everything has been moving so fast for the last ten years,” he says. “I mean in terms of putting out music and touring, it’s been kind of non-stop. I don’t mean this to sound bad, but there was less trying on this one. We have done a bunch of records. We’ve been in a lot of types of situations. We’ve been the big print on the poster, and we’ve been the tiny print on the poster. And we’re kind of just good with it. We don’t have anything to prove.”
Photo by Leslie Ryan McKellar / All Eyes Media