A songwriter with killer opening lines has her shit together: “I’m well aware of what the night’s made of/And I’m comin’ for you like a hawk for the dove.” Evocative, well-stressed, and horny, “Hawk for the Dove” is the kind of song Amanda Shires writes all the time, whether for herself or for her country supergroup the Highwomen. The scruffier, rangy approach of her seventh album Take It Like a Man complements the Texan’s flexible burr, plus the fiddle she has lavished on everyone from husband Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit to the late John Prine’s final recordings. Needy but not apt to grovel, willing to misbehave so long as they keep their cool, Shires’ characters exemplify the healthy tensions in country music.
Take It Like a Man dwells in the space between grand pop balladry and Memphis soul. Shires settles into a whispery talk-sing reminiscent of Stevie Nicks; why belt when she has room for an Isbell solo of characteristic pungency? His rhythm licks and twangy embellishments on “Stupid Love” and “Bad Behavior,” respectively, demonstrate the meticulousness of a player who practiced hours a day at the height of the pandemic. Multi-instrumentalist and producer Lawrence Rothman adds solid contributions on additional piano and guitar, but the standout is keyboardist Peter Levin, who (among many moments) locks in with drummer Julian Dorio on “Fault Lines” for the easiest of grooves.
On first listen Take It Like a Man may not offer material comparable to My Piece of Land’s “The Way It Dimmed,” To the Sunset’s “Wasn’t I Paying Attention,” or “If She Ever Leaves Me,” the Shires-Isbell-Chris Tomkins plaint sung by Highwoman Brandi Carlisle that ranks among the decade’s most shattering depictions of same-sex despair, but Shires marries hooks and narrative with a new assurance. Blessed with a gooey tune, “Bad Behavior” has Shires, eyes a-roll and smirk afixed, extolling the awesomeness of hookups. “Maybe it’s my nature/Maybe I like strangers,” she offers while Brittney Spencer and Maren Morris add “ya, bitch!” on backup. Refreshing her appetites as a means of replenishing her imagination is an essential component of Shires’ self-definition. She and Levin are at their best on “Empty Cups,” a lament for a relationship in which she fails “to keep the newness from wearing off.” Only “Everything Has Its Time,” a co-write with fellow Highwoman Natalie Hemby, offers the rote maxims that the rest of Take It Like a Man avoids.
An echoey mix sometimes makes Shires and the players sound as if they’re performing at the bottom of a well—a drier mix would’ve drawn these tales of lust and abandon in sharper colors. But as producer Rothman has the correct instincts: They foreground Shires’ big voice. And she and her band are more than simpatico on “Here He Comes,” a sly, slinky uptempo seduce-a-rama about bedding another stranger. Writing good drama is hard; writing comedy is work. Grace only looks easy.
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