A Country Music Icon Returns
2002 was a simpler time. George W. Bush was barely in his second year as president. The Iraq War was still in the distance. Taylor Swift was 13 years old, Beyoncé was part of Destiny’s Child, and Ashanti was being played on the radio. The majority of us were in elementary school. And 2002 was also the year Shania Twain’s last album Up! came out to critical acclaim and commercial success, before Shania retired from the public sphere and began her residency in Las Vegas. But now, 15 years later, she’s back with her fourth album, Now, and poised to hit No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart. It’s exceedingly rare for an artist to remain relevant for over a decade, and most artists would not have been met with such a warm welcome if they opted to effectively disappear for 15 years.
But Shania Twain is not like most artists, even ignoring the fact that she holds the record for best-selling album by a female artist in the United States. Shania’s impact resonates still through the country music soundscape; practically every female country artist owes her career in part to Shania, whose immense success demonstrated to the world the powerful charm of country music. Even the recent trend of successful pop artists going country, such as Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, can be traced back to Shania.
But the Shania of now in her latest album Now is a different Shania. The Shania of the past relished in uninhibited positivity and brightness. Love songs like “You’re Still the One” were touching paeans of monogamy and heterosexual love, and even tracks like “That Don’t Impress Me Much” were no more than playful remarks of how women just want someone to keep them warm at night. That past Shania loved exclamation marks, using them liberally in her song titles, and indeed her bombastic voice seemed to assume that there were always exclamation marks waiting at the end of her lyrics.
The song titles of Now feature no exclamation marks, and much of its songs are sung similarly without exclamation. She still sounds occasionally joyous, like in the singles “Life’s About To Get Good” and “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed,” but even then her voice lacks the thrilling confidence of her previous work. Other songs feature a world-weary Shania (“Home Now”), or a generically despondent Shania (“Because of You”), or a defensive, anxious Shania (“I’m Alright”).
Many of these differences can be attributed to her voice. In the 15 years since her last album, Shania battled Lyme disease that left her vocal cords damaged, and unfortunately it shows—Shania’s voice in Now sounds strangely filtered and almost robotic, as if her frail voice were being propped up with egregious editing. But Shania has also spoken about how her divorce from then-husband Robert John “Mutt” Lange left her, at least figuratively, without a voice, stating in an interview on the Oprah Winfrey Show, “I figured mentally that I would never sing again. I hadn’t written a song without this man in 14 years….How do I get started now?”
Mutt was also her producer and songwriter, and even if Shania’s voice was not literally affected by their split, her music still suffers as a result. But even if the album doesn’t feel typically Shania, it’s arguably the best representation of Shania to date—Shania wrote and produced each song, and in an interview with Rolling Stone, she says she went as far as to tell anyone working on the album with her to “forget her other records” because she did not “want to be related to Mutt’s productions at all.”
Lyrically, Shania has never been prone to the tropes of country music (pickup trucks, corn fields, bell-bottom jorts), but she’s always relished in its sounds, with guitars and banjos and fiddles galore. Now is marred by a disappointingly standard pop production that only occasionally errs on the country soundscape; “Poor Me” is the worst offender, with synths that sound directly plagiarized from the Chainsmokers’ song “Don’t Let Me Down” with Daya. Much can be forgiven about dramatic changes in style if the output is still high quality, but that cannot be said for “Poor Me,” a conglomerate of weak hooks and emotionless delivery, and for much of Now. None of the music is necessarily bad—it’s a consistently pleasant album—but it lacks the charm and personality of her previous work.
In the context of Shania’s career, Now is a fine album that represents her as an artist and should satisfy fans who’ve been waiting over a decade for new music. Unfortunately, an album that’s only good in a certain context is arguably not good at all. It’s great to have Shania back, but part of me is still waiting for the Shania of back then.