Losing and finding one’s voice is usually a pretty trite metaphor, but for Shania Twain, it took on a discouragingly literal quality when she was diagnosed with Lyme disease. It sounds like something from a movie: a diamond platinum early-2000’s pop country megastar quite literally had to learn to sing again. Twain has mentioned in interviews that when her voice finally did return it was less flexible and confined to a lower register than before.
The loss and recovery of her voice is not the only thing that makes Now (★★) a surprising album. Apart from a few flourishes that nod at her previous work, there is very little that recalls her steady run of chart-toppers, during which she kept one foot in pop and another in country, blurring the lines between the genres and all but revolutionizing country for a wide audience. Her first record in 15 years is also the first on which her longtime producer and now-ex husband is conspicuously absent, following a bitter and very public divorce. So it’s not surprising that the tone of Now is remarkably different from what came before it, showing us a more moody and reflective version of Twain.
Everything about Now, from the optimistic and aspirational lyrics, indicates that Twain is seeking to take her career in a new direction. Although she deserves some leeway for having to rebuild her vocals and production from the ground up, it’s easy to get the feeling that she’s still not certain what she wants that direction to look like. Her infectious enthusiasm aside, most of the album’s tracks miss their mark. “Home Now” nods at her country background with a fiddle and banjo, instruments that few would ever have associated with her particular brand of country. “Roll Me on the River,” meanwhile, is an ill-advised flirtation with R&B and gospel.
The lead single, “Life’s About to Get Good,” starts out promisingly and carries a legitimately catchy chorus line. It’s half confession, half middle finger raised towards her ex. For an uplifting post-breakup song, you could do worse, but it’s frustratingly bogged down by some ill-advised production choices. Vaguely “tropical” flourishes such as a steel drum pop up throughout the album, but the single is the most egregious offender here.
More obvious is the slightly tinny quality to the vocals reminiscent of the early explosion of autotune — although in fairness, Twain’s issues with her voice may have made some digital enhancement a necessity. Unexpected shifts in tone and instrumentals distract from a handful of good moments and make many of the tracks difficult to get into. The problem here, as with many of the choices made on Now, is that they don’t seem to have any particular reason for being there and appear out of place as a result. Add together too many of them, and the record begins to sound messy. Given the heft of her recording career, it may be that Twain felt like she needed to pull out all the stops to make her comeback as grand and bombastic as she possibly could. The approach might have worked well while she was still riding the wave of her success as a pop country diva, but it pairs awkwardly with the more reflective tone she attempts to achieve with Now.
From the point of view of a fan, Now is an album that didn’t need to be made. Twain could have easily continued her Vegas residency, made the odd guest appearance and even released a one-off single here or there and remained comfortable in her status. But wondering why she bothered to put in the time, effort and risk involved in releasing a comeback album might be missing the point. The answer might be that she may not have made this album to cash in on her existing fame, so much as for the sake of personal healing. With her struggles mostly behind her, she is not shy about sharing the lingering pain and resentment or journey that led her to this point.
Twain has always emphasized that she writes all her own songs. As the lyrics waver between self-pitying nostalgia and sunny optimism, they retain a diaristic quality. Even though the sound of the album comes across as somewhat manufactured, there is an authenticity and honesty to the songwriting. Twain may not have replicated her early successes, but it’s hard not to buy into her optimism about her life and share in it at least a little bit.
Now is available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes, and on streaming services.
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