In the 10 years since the debut release O’ Be Joyful, duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst known as Shovels and Rope have bolstered their musical legacy with six full-length albums as well as the three-part collaborative Busted Jukebox Volumes 1-3 covers series. Now comes Manticore, a body of work mostly finished prior to 2020 that was originally slated as a sparse output consisting plainly of acoustic guitar with piano. However, the pandemic shutdown arrived as these songs were ready for the studio, and the sudden surplus of time reshaped the intention, allowing the music to color in without restraint. “I was grateful to have something to work on, to go into the shop every day for a few hours, get into something, exercise parts of my brain and feel excited about something when there really wasn’t a whole lot to feel excited about at the time,” Trent recalls.
Though the album opens with the rollicking and unmistakably mid-century American “Domino,” a tale told through the eyes of the ghost of James Dean, the storytelling bulk is personal musings on life as parents and touring partners. “The Show” fictionalizes a conversation of how to separate the stage from real life, and then “Collateral Damage” takes the perspective of motherhood in modern times, Hearst singing, “They say you better learn to be a good wife / And make everyone a comfortable life / I’m trapped on the wheel like a circus mouse / Banging on the windows of my glasshouse.” Then the children come into focus as the couple nearly wails, “You are the best part” in the impassioned “Bleed Me.”
The most touching and perhaps most emotional moments come in penultimate track “Divide and Conquer” where the couple parse through an alternate reality in which they were to separate. As the song laments the dividing of their family, in the end their shared love is too strong. Speaking to these songs Hearst recounts, “it was like... no more mister nice guys, the polish is off, the humanity is in... the shiny perceptions or previous ideas of what we are, or are expected to be, are being mildly challenged in some of these songs in a different kind of way. In some ways it’s funny that we are addressing it now because our marriage is stronger than it’s ever been.”
“Domino” is spinning for listeners of WTMD, KUTX, and at the Colorado Sound, and KROK, WUIN, WPYA, and more are taking on “Collateral Damage.” Shovels and Rope are On Tour Forever right now.
Photo by Leslie Ryan McKellar