How come Shania Twain‘s Now, her first album in 15 years, sounds so much larger than most pop event records in 2017, so much darker and heavier and rifer with surprises than anything Twain’s ever done?
In their review of the album, Pitchfork quickly dismisses the notion that Now is her version of Beyoncé‘s Lemonade — the most obvious reference point for any contemporary blockbuster that deals heavily with marital turmoil, as this LP invariably does following the country-pop superhero’s divorce form her husband-megaproducer of 15 years, Robert “Mutt” Lange. And of course, the Canadian Lemonade wouldn’t be able to summon the “righteous fury” of a black American woman who’s protested by police groups and happens to be as iconic by now as Marilyn Monroe or just about any other human artist you can think up. But it’s to Beyoncé’s credit that she’s completely changed the course of breakup album history, and she didn’t even have to break up to do it.
For one thing, there’s tempo. The sadness of Now — which, as the story goes, comes trailing the revelation that Lange had been cheating on her with her best friend, leading to their separation and split in 2010 — in no way dulls its liveliness. Her first album in just as long is 20 minutes shorter than The Woman in Me, her multiplatinum 1993 breakthrough released at the height of her fire for Lange, and far less tethered to sodden balladry. One of Woman’s slowest songs wondered aloud, “Is There Life After Love?” and many of Now’s most chipper answer it with a riveting yes.
But it’s still a sobering affair; not one track title is punctuated with an exclamation point. This is a significant development following one on The Woman in Me, six on her world-renowned 1997 diamond (and Diamond certification) factory Come on Over, and a hyperglycemic nine on 2002’s Up! — without even counting the one in the album title. That’s what Twain chooses to mellow here, the demeanor rather than the music. Rather than crying, she narrows her eyes and tightens her stare. Surely Queen Bey is to thank on some level for the Now deluxe edition’s two piano dirges being shaved off the 41-minute album proper.
Instead, Now opens with the reggae-lite of “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed,” which isn’t far off from “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you,” and finds surprising detours left and right from anything that moves like typical pop in 2017, a nice advantage for being out of the game for a decade and a half. That means “Swingin’” goes through multiple permutations, a heavy-rock chorus and a double-time bluegrass breakdown that’s by far the countriest thing on a record that’s as firmly P-O-P as Taylor Swift’s 1989 and fitted with about four times as many costumes. It’s followed by “Home Now,” the second-countriest thing on Now, meaning an arena-pounder adorned with banjo and fiddle strum beneath its gated thunder-drums and full massed choirs of Shania vocals. But as the album progresses, it leaves her old sound more and more distant in the rearview mirror, which shouldn’t be a surprise after Up! was made available in “Red” pop mixes and “Blue” Bollywood options in addition to the “Green” country iteration.
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Many have pointed out that “Poor Me” sounds like The Chainsmokers, though the EDM duo haven’t thought of conceiving a bridge with a key change like that in their lives. “We Got Something They Don’t” sounds like one of Miranda Lambert’s tougher rock songs, albeit with a brass section beamed in from “Penny Lane.” The spacey balladry of the stunning “Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl” is gentle enough in its turns of phrase and gauzy harmonies to fit on a Lori McKenna or Brandy Clark album, the sort of muted elegance a surefire Nashville songwriter would save for herself rather than a marquee artist. It somehow feels even more alien on a Shania Twain album than the Motown-ready “You Can’t Buy Love” (which does include a “make some lemonade” wink). The biggest surprise on Now though, may be “Roll Me on the River,” a swamp-core shuffle with a beat like pistons that sounds universes away from anything Twain’s ever done; another few decibels and it would’ve fit on Zeal and Ardor’s black-metal-and-blues amalgam Devil Is Fine.
Historically, Shania Twain has hardly lacked for pro-woman (if not explicitly feminist) bona fides; when you’re this rich and influential, it means something when you say Brad Pitt don’t impress you much. (Even Up!, her most lightweight album, includes an anti-capitalist screed called “Ka-Ching!” that’s not nearly as cutesy as its title.) Scan the titles of Come on Over and “If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!” sticks out more in Trump-battered 2017 than even “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” while a lyric like “You even get suspicious when I paint my nails” from “Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)” feels like a significant proto-feminist observation for an excessively repackaged pop-country star.
But vitriol has never been part of Twain’s vocabulary; rather than filling Now with tracks called “If You’re Gonna Cheat, Don’t!” she doesn’t dwell on the circumstances; “Poor me this, poor me that” becomes “pour me another” in the most upset track here, and “Poor Me” is far from soggy. “Why do I keep looking back?” she asks matter-of-factly, and spends most of Now taking her own advice. For the most part, Twain puts her voice behind rainbow-after-the-storm optimism like the single “Life’s About to Get Good,” which could soundtrack a visit to a bouncy house.
At this point, divorced literally and sonically from “Mutt” Lange, Twain’s only genre is auteurism. The unexpected arrangements, genre exercises and strange, minor-key melodies all deliberately undermine the golden formula she crafted with her musical Midas ex with concision, and they also inject the current landscape with a lot of ideas that haven’t seen the charts in a while. It says something that she left the token trop-house sure-shot “Let’s Kiss and Make Up” off the regular edition — but maybe that was just because she and Lange didn’t make up.
Like Beyoncé, hearing a 100-million-selling woman simply take so many sojourns outside her comfort zone feels like a revolutionary act in itself, someone at their full creative peak pushing herself into new niches, dominating new musical territories. Both artists found a happy ending for their woes — Bey and JAY-Z supposedly worked through their crisis, and Shania found new romance, amazingly, with the man who used to be with her once-best friend — but both of them seized their blues’ power to creative something unlike anything else in their respective catalogs. If that’s not turning lemons into lemonade, then what is?