Now, the first new Shania Twain album in 15 years, has a strange dual existence. There are an abundance of questions and expectations that are being dragged behind it. Will she be able to achieve the kind of victories that she did in the ‘90s and early ‘00s without the songwriting help of her former husband, Robert John “Mutt” Lange? And how difficult will it be for her music to be heard over the din of hundreds of country and pop superstars that breezed through the doors she hip-checked open?
At the same time, Twain is a capital C celebrity, with a popular reality series, appearances on American Idol, and a hugely successful 2015 concert tour under her rhinestone-studded belt. Unless she decided to release a metal album as part of some pitiful artistic makeover, anything she does is going to be greeted with open arms. Neither of the singles she released in advance of Now have gone into heavy radio rotation, but she’s already been given a hero’s welcome on TV and in the press.
There is, then, a sense that Twain can do pretty much anything she wants with Now. Especially since the country music establishment that gave her her start has more wholly embraced the ideas that she put forth with her last album, Up!. In 2002, it seemed like overcompensation to release three different versions of the same album to satisfy the demands of three different markets: country, pop, and international listeners. These days, those lines have been blurred, if not erased completely.
So, with the help of some big-ticket collaborators like Jake Gosling, producer/co-writer for Ed Sheeran and One Direction, and Matthew Koma, who has worked with Carly Rae Jepsen and Zedd, Twain can play the musical chameleon over the course of just 12 tracks (16, if you spring for the deluxe edition). That means she can indulge in a little reggae here (opening track “Swingin’ with My Eyes Closed”), some Carole King-meets-Mark Ronson dramatics (“More Fun”), and even some dabblings in tropical house (“Life’s About to Get Good” and deluxe track “Let’s Kiss and Make Up”).
The sticking point for some listeners may be how much she has tamped down the anthemic side of her musical personality on Now. The logic behind that decision seems to have something to do with her voice, which has lost a little bit of the soar that it once had. That’s due to the simple fact of aging and that she’s still dealing with the effects of dysphonia, an abnormality that constricts the larynx. Twain now sings with a little throatiness, like Marianne Faithfull in the ‘80s without the two-pack-a-day habit.
Losing the stomping triumphal quality of her hits like “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much” was also an inevitability now that Lange is no longer in the picture. As a producer and songwriter, he aimed everything for the cheap seats. As a corrective, Twain and her collaborators reset the dial to simmer, reserving the bluster for the stage. Even if it is meant to coincide with pop music’s earbud-driven shift towards intimate productions, it mostly suits Now. When she sings of having her heart broken by a cheating lover on the sashaying “Poor Me” and over the quiet pulse of “I’m Alright”, Twain strikes a chord of resignation more than defiance. She’s been through this shit before and just wants to get through the pain. Even the night out with the girls atmosphere of “No Fun” (“The weekend’s here and all we want to do is be together/ Get a little crazy and forget what happens later”) is given a slow, grinding backbeat when she might have gone full-on confetti cannons and pumping house beats in years past. By the same measure, the whole album feels like it has been flattened out for the sake of streaming services. Without the big, chewy hooks, the songs tend to bleed together indistinguishably in hindsight.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the musical marketplace reacts to Now. Twain should be celebrating for wanting to grow as an artist, even if she is trying to twist herself into new knots to better fit into the currents of the mainstream. Any attempt to rewrite or recreate her past glories would have felt like a cop out, a pandering to the fans that have grown up with her. Those are the folks that should appreciate this wiser, more mature Shania. She wants to age gracefully. Let’s follow suit.
Essential Tracks: “Poor Me”, “I’m Alright”, and “No Fun”