Everyone is looking for a home. A place or a person or a state of being; where you can be unapologetically you; where you don’t have to hide; where you can share your dreams and fantasies without fear of reprisals. A place or a person to call your own.
Amanda Shires released her fifth solo endeavour last summer. Produced by Dave Cobb, My Piece of Land is a record full of raw emotions from impending motherhood to love’s dangerous intensity; from the sadness of reconciling a childhood of two homes to the bravery of staking your claim to another.
The record falls more into the Americana strain than the pop/folk essence of her previous release Down Fell the Doves. But like all of Shires’ body of work each word poured into each song on My Piece of Land is carefully chosen, deliberate, there are no fillers. Words remain her primary weapon, her tool to paint her musical world. Not that the instrumental arrangements are an afterthought but it is her words that set the mood, the experience and the landscape in which the listener can find his or herself in.
The emphasis on the written and spoken word is no more evident than in the opening song, ‘The Way It Dimmed’; a tale chronicling a relationship’s rise and ultimate demise, in all its intimate detail.
“Flashback, your headlights across the lawn/ You are the thing always I’m thinking I’ve lost/ Your fingerprints are still burned into my skin/ And I remember the fire and the way it dimmed/ As a fire will sometimes do.”
It is Shires’ ability to draw you into the memory each song evokes, as if you were right there in the room. Each word so carefully chosen like colours and brushstrokes on a canvas, it is impossible to not find pieces of your past and present in the songs.
‘Harmless’ an utterly sparse and unnervingly quiet track, one which you have to sit in silence to really hear. A barely there piano and guitar in the background at times it feels like Shires’ soft vocals are all alone in the room.
“A phased golden light, rained down from the streetlight/ It fell across your shoulder, paused just above your collar.”
This quiet does not equal lightness or absence of feeling. Each word is weighted with the heaviness of longing and that unfulfilled ache only falling in love can bring.
“It could have been harmless, wanting to see/ If I could get a little closer/ And walk away breathing/ It might’ve been cheating/ Where exactly is the line?/ Too early to admit it, I wanted you for mine.”
‘My Love (The Storm)’, one of the songs that Shires co-wrote with her husband Jason Isbell, opens with her queasy and uncomfortable fiddle and Isbell’s electric guitar. And like thunder follows lightening, is Shires’ vocals, dangerous and intense; marking her territory.
“My love is loud/ A thunder cloud/ A mother searching in a crowd.”
The name of the track seems to be at odds with itself, but which is perfectly conveyed not only in the lyrics but in the arrangement and instrumentation. Love conjures up feelings of softness, of vulnerability, and of safety. Shires takes that at turns it on its head. ‘My Love (The Storm)’ brings forth the lethalness of a storm and the all or nothingness of unconditional love.
“I am the storm at summer’s end/ Watch the willows mourn/ Watch the branches bend/ And the wind don’t know your daddy’s name/ And the heart will break all the plans you’ve made.”
‘Mineral Wells’ is a rediscovery from Shires’ first album, West Cross Timbers. Shires stated the reason for its inclusion on My Piece of Land was that as a child from a broken home who was about to become a mother, she was re-evaluating what it is to have a home and to belong; wanting her child to have a place or at least people to call home in the midst of having touring musicians for parents.
The song is scattered with memories of childhood in two different places. One that no matter how happy is always full of melancholy and longing for what might have been had home been one place. Shires delicate and at times wavering vocals are accompanied by her signature ukulele and an occasional piano.
“My arms reach out for the Brazos river/ Tanks and cypress of the west crossed timbers/ And oh, I know, it shows/ I’m another one still thirsting for my own.”
‘Pale Fire’, another collaboration with Isbell, documents the unravelling of a love affair. Isbell’s steady guitar plucking and soft harmonies accompanying Shires’ resigned vocals and subdued violin, with both parts melting and enveloping into one.
“Things never made it back to normal/ He was the wrong kind of naïve/ She stopped for gas in Oklahoma/ Left him alone on St. John’s Eve.”
There’s a softness and a sadness in the song. The writing paints the unravelling to perfection but it is the instrumentation that suggests there was much left unsaid in that unravelling.
“And every man I meet is perfect/ Any better they’d be wrong/ That way it’s never really worth it, and I can spend my days alone.”
My Piece of Land comes to a close with the song that gave the album its name. ‘You Are My Home’ is Shires staking her claim to this allusive and ever changing concept of home.
“Your six-one frame/ My address is your name/ High ceilings, grand halls/ Walls are just walls, and you are my home.”
The song creeps up on you ever so slowly, with Shires subdued yet defiant vocals left nearly untouched by the instrumental arrangement. It is in the bridge where Shires’ violin and Isbell’s guitar let loose and take over but as quickly as they came out into the open, are reined back in by Shires. There is a sense of finality in her final words.
“You are my home, wherever you go/ Anywhere you stand, is my piece of land/ You are my home.”
To stake a claim to someone or to a place, an identity or way of life, even one that might not be tangible is both brave and vulnerable in a time where temporariness is fashionable, and where our ephemeralness is a constant reminder. My Piece of Land is an attempt at creating permanence in spite of this.