To the Sunset
Silver Knife Records
Now this is more like it. As lovely as it admittedly was, Amanda Shires’ last album, My Piece of Land, played more like a languid, chamomile-steeped sigh of domestic contentment than the whiskey-spiked fever dream of desire and morbid curiosity that characterized both 2013’s Down Fell the Doves and 2011’s equally striking Carrying Lightning. The tone shift was by design, and bold in its own right; although not entirely without hints of shadow and self doubt, it was overall the sound of one of America’s edgiest young songwriters consciously dropping her guard just enough to reveal her softer, more vulnerable side, bathed in the happy afterglow of new motherhood. The results netted Shires some of the warmest accolades of her career (including a long overdue “Emerging Artist of the Year” win at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards), but it was hard not to miss that certain air of intoxicating mystery that made the West Texas native’s music so intriguing to begin with — which is why To the Sunset feels like such a thrilling return to form. This is hardly a case of Shires playing it safe by falling back into her old (dis)comfort zone, though; it’s arguably the most adventurous and unpredictable album she’s made yet. There’s nothing “pretty” to be heard amidst the fuzz-bomb din of “Eve’s Daughter,” let alone even remotely “Americana” in the giddy, skittering pulse of “Leave It Alone” or the propulsive New Wave thrust of “Take On the Dark”— just the exhilarating rush of an artist shifting musical gears on a dime and veering into the unknown, “too unafraid to even be brave” and brimming with the tenacious vim and mischievous whim of a serial fire starter. In “Break Out the Champagne,” she plays chicken with apocalypses both literal and emotional (“Let’s get on with the shit show!”), and later punctuates the closing “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” with a shocking scene that somehow catches you unaware (with the same blood-chilling effect) even after dozens of listens. But there’s beauty in spades here, too, heard throughout in Shires’ artful weave of haunting but disarmingly limber melodies and richly poetic lyrics (leave it to an avowed fan of Leonard Cohen to write lines like “storm light through windows paint everything shades of neglected fish tank green.”) My one quibble? The exquisite “Swimmer” was already featured on Shires’ aforementioned Carrying Lightning album, and the new recording here doesn’t really improve on the original any more than her re-do of “Mineral Wells” (first heard on 2008’s West Cross Timbers) did on My Piece of Land. Songs on that level certainly deserve every chance they can to be heard, but so do all of her early albums as a whole. Here’s hoping newer fans take the time to go back and catch up on their own, because if To the Sunset proves anything, it’s that Shires is too damn good to slow down. — RICHARD SKANSE