Amanda Shires Blows Up Americana Cliches On Her Thrilling New Album, ‘To The Sunset’

Elizaveta Porodina

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Amanda Shires’ fifth album, To The Sunset, concludes with a real mic drop. In “Wasn’t I Paying Attention,” the 36-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist relates a first-person narrative about a man in Nome, Alaska who lends the truck keys to a friend heading into town. What happens next requires a spoiler alert, so skip ahead a few grafs if you want to experience the shocking conclusion to one of the year’s best story-songs unfettered.

When I first heard “‘Wasn’t I Paying Attention,” I wondered if Shires had read a similar story in a newspaper, or perhaps was inspired by the recent hit podcast S-Town, about a small-town misfit who meets a tragic end. But when reached by phone last week while traveling via tour bus, Shires explained that the song unfolds more or less how it was explained by her father, who spends half the year in Alaska trawling the Bering Sea in search of gold. Her dad is the song’s protagonist, and what occurs in “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” actually happened to his buddy.

“Dad told me that he let him borrow his truck, and he went into town, and poured gas on himself and slit his throat and lit himself on fire,” Shires recalled, in the same dispassionate, journalistic tone that makes the song so chilling. (The man somehow survived.)

Soon after that fateful phone call, Shires started processing her father’s anecdote as art. “I guess what bothered my dad — and then me too — was not knowing his friend as truly as he thought he did,” she said. “It sits with you, and it bothers you, and it doesn’t go away, and you need help explaining it to yourself. That’s when the songwriting part comes.”

Throughout To The Sunset, which comes out August 3, Shires tells personal stories as a way of getting at overarching truths about the human experience. There are songs about mothers and daughters, anxiety, and mortality, laced with empathy and Shires’ dry sense of humor, as well as the sharpest pop-rock hooks of her career. Working with sought-after country producer Dave Cobb, Shires sets her literary, character-driven narratives to lush, jangly melodies that recall ’80s alt-rock mainstays like R.E.M., The Smiths, and Echo And The Bunnymen.

It’s a breakthrough for the native Texan, who’s been playing music professionally since she was 15, when she joined up with Western swing legends the Texas Playboys as a junior fiddle player. Since then, Shires has been lumped in that amorphous, ill-defined genre known as Americana, where she’s among the most respected (if not yet famous) artists. She also moonlights as a member of The 400 Unit, acting as an on-stage foil for her husband of five years, Jason Isbell. (He returns the favor by playing guitar on To The Sunset.)