Shania Twain is back — with a deeper sound and a new album
By Werner Trieschmann
June 12, 2018
Music stardom doesn't come with an expiration date but, if it did, it would likely be an absurdly short time.
In the late 1990s Canadian Shania Twain (born Eilleen Regina Edwards) was at the peak of a career built in Nashville, Tenn., but had spread beyond the confines of country music. Come On Over, released in 1997, featured the musical partnership between Twain and then husband and producer Robert "Mutt" Lange. Twain's sound, which by that point had abandoned any hint of traditional country trappings such as pedal steel guitars and influenced by Lange's work with AC/DC and Def Leppard, blew through the few remaining honky-tonk cobwebs on Music Row.
"Man, I Feel Like a Woman" and "You're Still the One" were two of the smash singles found on Come On Over, a record that ultimately sold approximately 20 million copies in the United States alone. Twain's uptempo, female-centric pop anthems resonated with a large percentage of the record-buying public.
Adding to her popularity, Twain, a striking beauty, seemed to be designed in a lab for eye-popping appearances on award shows, Entertainment Tonight and music videos. By the time the calendar flipped to 2000, Twain's status as a crossover hitmaker was rock solid.
Here in 2018, the country music landscape has shifted. While Nashville might not be openly hostile to female artists, it is hardly a welcoming environment-- bros such as Luke Bryan and the Florida Georgia Line duo generally rule the airwaves and arenas. It's hard not to look at the career trajectory of Taylor Swift -- country sensation to pop world queen in the span of a handful of albums -- and see the shadow of Twain in it.
Twain, 52, arrives today in North Little Rock's Verizon Arena touring behind a new album, Now, released last year. The question is whether Twain can achieve what so few pop artists are able to pull off-- a comeback more than just another lap around the track, more than nostalgia for younger, more popular days.
The 20 plus years between Come On Over and today have been eventful for Twain to say the least. After the release of 2003's Up!, Twain stopped performing and recording albums for more than 10 years. It's certainly probable that Twain would have fallen out of the spotlight for the common reason of fans and the music industry moving on to the next new shiny thing. However, it's hard not to point to other factors as the cause.
A couple of significant events curdled the fairy-tale rise of Twain. The most spectacular and tabloid-grabbing one was the breakup of Twain and Lange's marriage, which came to light in 2008.
The story behind the dissolution was too juicy to stay under wraps -- Lange was having an affair with Marie-Anne Thiebaud, Twain's best friend. As fate would have it, Twain fell for and eventually married Thiebaud's ex-husband, Frederic.
Twain has let it be known in a few recent interviews that her anger at her former best friend has not subsided much over the years. In any case, the divorce from Lange meant there was no going back to the musical collaboration that proved to be so fruitful during Twain's career.
The personal tumult in the singer's life was followed by a medical problem that presented an even larger obstacle to a return. In 2011 Twain announced that she had dysphonia, a condition that left her unable to sing. At that time Twain claimed the dysphonia was brought on by stress, but in the last few years she has said her voice was dimmed due to Lyme disease.
By 2013, after intense vocal therapy, Twain emerged for a two-year stint at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 2017, Twain's new studio album, first in 15 years, and the subsequent national tour, demonstrated the new push to be a relevant figure on the music scene.
The early demand for a new Twain record was strong enough to put Now at the top of the Billboard album chart in late October last year. Unlike most Nashville albums where credits include multiple names for a single song, Now is the product of one songwriter -- Twain herself.
Now's release was significant enough to draw reviews from the few remaining heavyweight music publications left-- Pitchfork and Rolling Stone being the most prominent.
At first listen, Now doesn't sound radically different from Come On Over or even Twain's last studio album, Up! (even as Up! was packaged in confusing Red [pop] and Green [country] versions). She doesn't have Lange as a producer, but Twain's instinct for catchy songs with singalong choruses feels strong as ever on songs like "Swingin' With My Eyes Closed" and the arena-size anthem "More Fun."
Now has been of course scrutinized for songs that point to Twain's painful divorce; "Poor Me" is the one that immediately jumps out. The lyric, "I wish he'd never met her/Then everything would be the way it was," is about as direct as they come. The song "I'm Alright" is an affirmation by a soul looking to be propped up.
The overall tempo of Now is slow, certainly when compared to Twain's peppy, exclamation point-riddled records of the past. The other element that paints this record with a darker color is Twain's reconstructed voice. It is recognizably deeper and, as a result, she strains to put the faster songs over. Now is soggy in places where it could -- and probably should -- snap and crackle.
It would be wrong to expect Twain to make the same record as when she was younger and ruling the go-go '90s. Now is true to its title -- it's an uneven but mostly accomplished, compelling portrait of a star making a strong first step out of exile.
Whether or not Now will lead to that rare second act in show business remains to be seen. Twain's hit-happy history and her current commitment indicate that it would be foolish to dismiss her.