Monday, October 2, 2017

Now | Shania Twain



"Dun-dun-dah-duh-dah-dun-dun."

Never has one guitar riff been so capable of igniting such a staggering excitement in every crowd it is played before, each one eager to respond with a resounding chorus: "Let's go girls!" Much like the album from which it originated, "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" adopted a life much larger than the artist who birthed it. By the time it was released in winter 1999,  singer-songwriter Shania Twain was already over a year deep in the promotion of Come on Over, a mammoth album that remains the best-selling album from a female act in the United States.

Up!, the album to follow after the turn of the millennium, was an ambitious reaction to her extraordinary fame. The mega-record went bigger, boasting three discs of 19 tracks dressed in different production styles: a country disc to pacify original fans who had stuck around since The Woman in Me days, a pop disc to cement the love from those who were swept up in her previous record's country-pop charm, and a Bollywood-style disc for the hell of it. It fanned hits, though not as many as its predecessor, across pop and country formats, strengthening her crossover appeal.

And when it seemed as if Shania Twain couldn't go any larger, the instinct was right. Not long after Up! and a subsequent greatest hits compilation, Twain's stage went dark. And behind the curtain, her world imploded. Her husband and sole musical collaborator on her largest three records, Robert "Mutt" Lange, was caught in an affair with Twain's best friend, a saga that rolled out to fans via tabloid magazine sidebars. Meanwhile, battles with dysphonia and Lyme disease almost stripped her of a vital luxury: her voice. Happiness ensued, though, when she found solace in Lange's mistress' then-husband, whom Twain married after both couples divorced.

Upon her return to the spotlight a decade after Up!'s release, she planted her feet as a nostalgia act – one with a Vegas residency packed with all the hits and a bit of pizzazz. She even took the act on the road, crossing North America on an all-time performer's high and a promise to follow up with new music. Making good on that promise, she has released her fifth studio album eagerly but cautiously, like a swimmer who dips her toe into the water to ensure it's a proper temperature before she cannonballs into the deep end. Titled Now, it's a pop-lite effort that burrows into glossy, streamlined soundscapes that hyperextend what country music can be.

It's a fitting title as we watch Twain find her place in today's pop culture, what must feel like fifty worlds away from what she left behind in the last decade. She once wrote a mix of remarkable love ballads and empowerment anthems with feminist intentions, leveraging herself as a titan for the everyday woman. Although accusatory tracks like "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" or "Waiter! Bring Me Water!" invoke quite a strange feeling in hindsight, never was it implied or believed that Twain, who worked on music only with her then-husband, wrote them from an autobiographic perspective. But damn, she delivered them with an attitude that made it hard to believe that she had to feign sincerity.

Playing a relatively similar role as she did years ago, today's Shania Twain prides herself on optimistic, self-motivating tracks. Just as informal and conversational as she was when we last heard from her, she now channels a personal place, loosely entwining leftover scars from her nearly decade-old divorce. Lead single "Life's About to Get Good," for example, carries a cheery disposition and not-so-subtle jabs at Lange over a thumping, awkwardly thin soundscape: "The longer my tears fell, the wider the river. It killed me that you'd give your life to be with her." Likewise, she sings, "Still can't believe he'd leave me to love her" on the not-so-country "Poor Me."

While it retains its cornerstones, her sound isn't as unmistakably Shania as before. Having sustained permanent damage after her battle with Lyme disease, her voice idles at a lower pitch and is blanketed with a nasally overtone. The gusto she has left is steamrolled into synthetic productions deemed thin enough to give her voice the competitive edge, even though she has proven herself capable of railing through her older, thicker tracks after they've been tailored down a half-step or two. Nevertheless, she delivers her sustained notes statically ("Swingin' with My Eyes Closed," "Soldier") and sounds most comfortable on the lowest rumbles of "Roll Me On the River" and "We Got Something They Don't," back-to-back standout tracks sparked alive by stern drumbeats and walls of instrumentation.

With thinner, lighter soundscapes and an even larger ratio of contemporary pop to country trends, Now proves that Twain is genuine when she says she has serious interest in collaborating with the likes of Nick Jonas and Nicki Minaj, be that for better or for worse. The chords that open "Poor Me" can be traced back to The Chainsmokers, and trendy island island beats breeze their way into dance-country hybrid track "Swingin' with My Eyes Closed." Luckily, the latter leans more towards her roots, sharing a warm, country-based sound with "Home Now." Nothing feels more familiar to Shania fans, however, than "Who's Gonna Be Your Girl," a mid-tempo country track that finds Twain's melody leaning into a soft pile of backing harmonies.

An album titled Now insinuates life in the moment, without the past's interference in thoughts and actions. Given her statements in the press during this record's promotion cycle, it seems that's what drew Twain to the title. But even as much as she refuses to admit it, the present is here only because the past paved the way – the chaotic past that she has referenced time and time again in her newest work, from the cheetah print revival from "That Don't Impress Me Much" to the direct nods toward her divorce. Ultimately, despite the reluctance to throw a "divorce record" tag onto Now, humility yields to honesty too often throughout the record for it not to wear the dreaded label.

In her past life, Twain created monstrous albums that had only two gears: slow-burning, unbelievably great love ballads and uptempo, unbelievably great firecrackers. Today, she stalls somewhere on middle ground, making one of her shortest records feel like her most bloated. But even given its sterile production that may be better off classified as adult contemporary rather than country, Now is also her most emotional and most honest. Penning the therapeutic album by herself, she doesn't play the everyday woman but proves she is the everyday woman – one who has been hurt and has managed to heal. So sure, it's certainly no Come on Over, but that's because it was never meant to be another Come on Over anyway.

Now is available now under Mercury Nashville.

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Maira Gall