To really know somebody is to know all the little ways to hurt them. It’s fitting, then, that the most devastating moments on Take It Like A Man are rarely the most dramatic. “You can say it’s all my fault, we just couldn’t get along”, she sings on the quietly dignified “Fault Lines”. “Just so you know, I’ll say ‘I don’t know’/But no-one’s gonna be asking me”.
Like a lot of people – like a lot of wives and mothers – Shires experienced something of a compression of identity during the pandemic, locked down at home near Nashville with her husband, the musician Jason Isbell, and their daughter. A touring musician since joining the Texas Playboys on fiddle at the age of 15, Shires had a considerable body of work to her name before meeting Isbell, whose career-defining albums Southeastern and Something More Than Free charted their courtship and the role Shires played in helping him get sober. As Isbell’s star climbed, the love story captured in his songs charmed fans beyond Shires’ own work: on her solo material; with John Prine and in Isbell’s backing band The 400 Unit; and recruiting Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris to join her in country supergroup The Highwomen.
Lockdown and the deaths of Shires’ friends and collaborators Prine and Justin Townes Earle put that work on pause, as well as exacerbating tensions in the public-facing fairytale. With two working musicians in the house, Shires found her own creativity stifled. Disillusioned with music after several poor studio experiences, she was convinced she would never record again – until an approach from musician-producer Lawrence Rothman changed her mind.
Take It Like A Man – Shires’ second full-length collaboration with Rothman following last year’s For Christmas – is a bold re-statement of artistic identity. An unsparing document of a very real marriage, it ruthlessly captures the everyday resentments and recriminations, and, ultimately, the love that gets one through those moments. It is, in a sense, Shires’ Lemonade, with Isbell’s guitar work on some of the album’s rawest tracks paralleling Jay-Z’s contributions to wife Beyoncé’s opus.
“Fault Lines”, the piano-and-string-led elegy at the album’s mid-point, is the rawest of those, a portrait of a relationship stretched to breaking point. “Time was all I’d want”, intones Shires over Peter Levin’s gloomy piano, “you can keep the car and the house”. The first song to emerge from Shires’ early correspondence with Rothman and the first to be recorded, it was cut and re-cut from the final tracklisting, its unflinching lyrics – including a reference to the “flagship” character of her husband’s song of the same name – begging to be unravelled. Ultimately it was Isbell who persuaded Shires not to leave it out.
It’s an exquisite move, as it allows the album to ebb and flow from rebirth to redemption through resentment, reconciliation and romance. Opener “Hawk For The Dove” is immediately immersive, its booming bass drum, electric guitar squall and frantic second-half fiddle a counterpoint to the coyness in Shires’ vocals. “You can call me serious trouble, just admit I’m what you want”, she purrs, as Highwomen protégée Brittney Spencer echoes the mischievous refrain.
“Empty Cups”, written solely by Shires, is a lyrical masterwork of tiny resentments: a door slammed so hard that spoons rattle, a hand on a cheek, a “makeup rainbow” of a tear-streaked face. Stately organ and backing vocals from Maren Morris, whose voice could wring tears from a stone at the best of times, complete a picture of looming heartbreak, while “Don’t Be Alarmed”, which features co-writing credits for Isbell, Rustin Kelly and Liz Rose, attempts to paper over the cracks.
A trio of songs on the back half of the album offer solace. “Here He Comes” is a bouncy romp with a horn section as irresistible as the “slight lean and overconfident creep” of its subject matter. “Bad Behavior” tracks a tentative courtship and an underlying wildness, emphasised by glistening keyboards, while “Stupid Love” is a sunny Southern love song complete with a four-part horn section.
While, as in life, no happy endings are assured – see swooping Natalie Hemby co-write “Everything Has Its Time”, with its gentle message of “nothing lasts forever” – the overall journey here is one of self-discovery and self-reliance. Even the title of the album turns out to be a message to that effect, with Shires, as the title track closes, drawing out that final line: no need to “take it like a man” when you can “take it like Amanda”.