‘NOW’ Review: Shania Twain Tells Her Story Her Way

Wall Street Journal
By Barry Mazor
September 26, 2017

Shania Twain’s “NOW,” set for release Friday, is her first new album in nearly 15 years. She has remained, right through that prolonged hiatus, the highest-selling female country artist of all time, with over 100 million albums sold world-wide. But the context has changed dramatically in her life, and in music, since the 2002 release of her album “Up!”

Ms. Twain has struggled with dysphonia, a vocal-cord disorder that makes speech, let alone singing, difficult; and has seen the end of her marriage to rock producer Mutt Lange. He had played a large role in shaping the albums of that 1995-2002 run when her music was ubiquitous, including such cheeky, hook-heavy hits as “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!,” “You’re Still the One” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Many will recall those singles as steamy, rule-breaking country videos, a testament, in part, to cable-TV video supremacy in that era. But if fans are checking out Ms. Twain’s eye-catching, sometimes comic new video “Life’s About to Get Good,” it’s likely they are doing so online—via outlets that don’t necessarily provide equivalent impact. 

Both her fans—many of them excited as young women by her celebrations of womanhood and her brash rebukes to overbearing men—and those who were skeptical about the synthesizer-laden dance-music sounds the Twain-Lange team brought into country will be wondering, “Now—what?”

This return album reaches listeners as Ms. Twain reports having come to terms with the vocal disorder, in part by singing in a somewhat lower register—audible, but not dramatically different. And as for the sounds of this album, and the points she makes in the songs, there’s no doubt that they’re exactly what she wants them to be. If it was commonly suggested during her hit run that the sounds and video images were manipulative concoctions developed by Mr. Lange, and Ms. Twain was merely his puppet, that charge is certainly well-debunked now.

As the songwriter and shot-caller here, she is singularly responsible for the album’s sounds and pointed commentary on her own experiences. That “Life’s About to Get Good” video features her trashing a photo of Mr. Lange, who’d left her for her best friend—a subject taken on acerbically there and in “Poor Me,” but clearly painful in the haunted ballad “Where Do You Think You’re Going,” included on the four-track-longer “Deluxe” version of the album. Recovered and happily remarried, she is presented that way in “I’m Alright.” Ms. Twain was writing songs reflective of her own experiences before stardom, to a degree in those hits records, too, but never more so than on “NOW.”

Some of the new songs are as acoustic as fans of “stripped down” country could want; “Soldier,” directed at a departing serviceman, is a moving, melodic example. (“Don’t close the door when you leave. It’s cold out; I want to see the air when you breathe.”) The once-controversial Twain dance-music style is still in the mix, in such thumpers as “You Can’t Buy Love” and “Roll Me on the River,” with instrumentation, percussion and vocals cleaner and clearer than in the Lange-produced sessions because the digital-music tools—so familiar today that they should shock no one—have improved. The bulk of the album splits the difference between thump and acoustic, with roots-friendly pop often influenced by Celt folk-rock.

The autobiographical stories can be both witty and catchy. In “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” another deluxe track, she suggests, to an infectious melody, “Let’s be open; we’re not broken—not yet!” In “Poor Me,” mocking self-pity with a country-style joke, she sings, “Still can’t believe he’d leave me to love her; so pour me—another.”

The degree of directness on display at times comes as something of a surprise. Temperamentally reserved, more inclined to reveal her midriff than her feelings, Ms. Twain had often used jokes, heavy beats or visual distractions to avoid direct emotional engagement with the situations she raises. But if maturity has brought added directness, often claimed as the country-music ideal, floating above the emotions also has some precedent. “Shania Twain: Rock This Country,” an exhibit running at the Country Hall of Fame and Museum through July 15, 2018, traces her career from obscurity and poverty in Northern Ontario to world stages, focusing especially on the attention-riveting outfits seen in her hit videos and live performances: the black-tie and top-hat suit from “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” The leopard-print hoodie from “Come On Over.” The black-lace and leather motorcycle outfit from “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” On the same floor is “ Loretta Lynn : Blue Kentucky Girl,” revealing an unstated parallel: Ms. Lynn’s celebrated feistiness toward mistreatment, even anger, has always been encased behind a wry smile, her own sort of emotional floating. At this point, Ms. Twain’s similar approach to feisty material might even be seen as traditional.

The new “NOW” album may still not prove enticing for those who find any evidence of production at all “too much,” or for the thin-skinned put off by barbed comments about the male of the species, but for everyone else there is much to enjoy and admire here. Ms. Twain’s nicely varying sound choices and the considered experience behind the sentiments could prove revealing to a new 21st-century audience.

—Mr. Mazor, based in Nashville, reviews country and roots music for the Journal.