The cover art alone on Shovels & Rope’s new album, depicting a manticore, a legendary animal with the head of a man with horns in the body of a lion, and a tail of a dragon or scorpion, is disarming. The music is as well. While it bears the bold similarities to their 2019 By Blood, they come across less joyous, more poignant and purposeful, but ultimately renewed on Manticore. The duo took the various emotions associated with the pandemic and expressed them in song – the toll it took on them as a couple, as parents, and as touring musicians. Perhaps even the location played into it. The songs were written in the rear courtyard suite of the Decatur Street house belonging to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter during the quiet of the afternoon.
The album begins with the frantic “Domino,” with Cary Ann Hearst rapidly delivering American imagery about the death of James Dean, America’s reaction to it, and Dean’s ghost’s puzzled reaction (“Did I die last night? /Am I walking around? / I’m here but I’m not me/I’m a ghost/I’m a domino”) delivered over thumping drums, fuzzing bass and pounding piano. One can easily read in some sarcasm here in terms of America’s addiction to celebrity. As a country, we even went so far as to elect a reality-TV star to President. “The Show” relates thematically as it’s an exaggerated version of a real-life discussion in New York City about separating real life from stage life. The song ebbs and flows from simple piano chords to a glorious crescendo with their voices harmonizing beautifully on the wailing chorus.
While that song refers to finding some quiet moments in the lives of two touring musicians, “Collateral Damage” delves even more directly into their marriage as Cary Ann Hearst ruminates over her role as wife and mother. One of her analogies here is priceless – “Like getting launched into deep space/In nothing but a nightshirt and a neck brace.” Hearst likens “Bleed Me” to screaming at the top of your lungs in the unabashed pean to their children, perhaps the album’s most joyous moments and certainly the most indelible – “From the back of my mind / To the tip of my spine / From before there was time / To the corners of my eye / You are the best part.”
“Happy Birthday Who” offers bleak contrast as Trent contemplates his role and very existence in a series of self-deprecating observations and rhetorical questions. This one fits the original stripped-down concept for the album. “Crown Victoria” brings a repetitive, full-throated chorus of “I don’t wanna wait” as if to wish the pandemic or a phase of their marriage to disappear. “Divide and Conquer” imagines a fictional reality where their steadfast marriage dissolved, and the children are divided between the divorced parents. It’s an exaggerated way of facing challenges, a God-forbid-that-it-never-happens expression, reminding them how important they are to each other.
“Anchor” marks the point where the album thematically deviates. It has nothing to do with their personal plight but is instead a story sung by Trent about a down-and-out hooker confined to a miserable life, hence the analogy to an “anchor in the deep blue sea.”. “No Man’s Land” seems inspired by watching war films circa World War One as two soldiers reminisce about wanting to get home while stuck in desolate, snow-covered landscape.“ They close with “The Human Race,” a despairing ode to today’s troubled times clothed with phrases such as “A candy-colored masquerade” and “I want to feel the sunshine” and ending with the faintest glimmer of hope with “Shit and death turn to good dirt…if you give it long enough,” to the abrupt crash of one dissonant piano chord.
Like the contradictions embodied in the manticore, one can feel threatened, amused, and bewildered all at the same time. The music is simple with wonderful harmonies, but the breadth of what’s covered is so intriguingly complex, that while difficult to digest at first, exerts a yearning tug that keeps pulling one back for more listens.