Sorry to disrupt any Shania Twain fans out there enjoying their Tim Horton’s Canadian bacon breakfast, but this new album is complete junk. It is an absolute abomination of recorded music, not to mention anything that might resemble “country.” And please don’t believe that I’m speaking in hyperbole. This album is the result of such downright irresponsible production efforts, the aftermath should be the firing of people at Mercury Nashville, or whomever is responsible for allowing this album to see the light of day. Shania Twain’s Now is an embarrassment to the entire music industry, and very well might be the worst produced album in modern mainstream history. Yet the least worthy of blame might be the one whose name and visage grace the cover, trying uselessly to revitalize the 90’s relevancy of leopard print.
What was the big narrative going into the recording and release of Now? What was cited as one of the reasons it has taken Shania Twain so long to see this record through to a release date? It’s because her long-time producer and husband Robert John “Mutt” Lange left her, and supposedly for one of Shania’s best friends. Mutt Lange is the one often given the lion’s share of credit for taking Shania’s raw songs and building her into the international crossover superstar she became in the 90’s. And Mutt’s absence was seen as the reason Shania could not find sure footing for her career since the 2010 split.
So all the more reason and importance that whomever was brought on board as a producer for this new album made sure that Shania Twain was done right to help rewrite the narrative that she’s nothing without Mutt. On Now, Shania Twain does her own job, at least for the most part. This record, which Shania co-wrote the entirety of, finds the 52-year-old articulating the heartbreak and feelings of betrayal and hopelessness in the exit of Mutt from her life in candid honesty via songs not written superbly by any stretch, but still enhanced by personal sentiments of vulnerability and loss addressed bravely, and with enough conviction to make it easy for listeners to connect with the emotion.
But the production of Now couldn’t be more wrong, so much so that it might be an ideal specimen to hold up to the light and diagram in what to avoid in modern music making. At an incredible 16 songs in the deluxe edition, five separate producers credited, and some 15 years in the making, the fact that this is all they could come up with is beyond unconscionable. There’s not really even any variety. Every song seems to be hindered by this insurmountably cloistered, unimaginative, uninspired, poor interpretation of what is relevant in music today, rendering each and every one of these songs excruciatingly disappointing even to those who’d steeled themselves anticipating the lowest rung of measured expectations.
There are no acoustic moments, which could have worked for certain songs, no responsibility to a song like “Pour Me” that works well on paper. It’s just the same lazy synthesized and computerized production nearly devoid of human contact on one unlistenable song after another.
Most notably in the production of Now is the egregious, offensive use of Auto-tune and other vocal enhancements on most all the tracks, rendering an iconic voice from one of country music’s most accomplished performers into nothing more that an objectionably-processed electronically-transmogrified audio signal that at times is so enveloped in digital enhancements, is downright inaudible, and resembles nothing even close to a diminished shade of Shania’s authentic tone. Not since George Strait’s Auto-tuned The Cowboy Rides Away live album have we witnessed such disregard for the intelligence of the public when employing pitch-correction tools, and this leaves nothing to be said about the other monsterous filters beyond the Auto-tune that saddle Shania’s voice.
And I’m sure someone will want to bring up the dysphonia and Lyme disease diagnoses that apparently made Shania lose her singing voice to some extent in 2011 as an excuse for the strange vocal situation on this record, but this has long since been resolved, and Shania’s been singing in Vegas and on tour with solid performance capabilities and no concerns about quality since before this album was recorded. The Auto-tune is so slathered on these recordings, it’s done either by someone believing Shania’s voice is no longer strong enough to be presented in raw form, or a misnomer that gravely-debilitating vocal enhancements are what is necessary to stay relevant in today’s technologically advanced music space. Basically, someone thought Shania’s voice wasn’t good enough, which should be a much more grave insult to her than anything iterated in this admittedly scathing estimation of the efforts on Now.
But let’s not just focus our ire on the vocal results from this failed production effort. The very first song, “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed,” starts off by ripping off Queen’s “We Will Rock You” beat (a feat Shania and Mutt already perfected with he first major hit, “Any Man of Mine” in 1995), before lapsing into a ridiculous reggae groove. You go desperately searching for something, anything to say is commendable about the music or production on this record, but it never materializes. Instead you are forced to sit through one incredibly bad-sounding song after another until it borders on the psychotic. If you didn’t know any better, you would almost conclude that someone from the Mutt Lange camp purposely sabotaged Shania from how the end results of Now were rendered to the public. Shania feels like the victim here, not the perp.
And don’t construe these conclusions as slanted opinions solely based on taste. Thomas Rhett’s new album may get some people’s dander up, especially in traditional country circles. But if you listen, you can at least understand why certain people enjoy it. It’s pop and sensible. It’s not country, but you can hear why the kids out there would love it. But with Now, it’s hard to see how anyone can find favor with it unless they’re just so caught up in being a Shania fan, or were so eager with anticipation after 15 years it didn’t matter what it sounded like.
There are a couple of different schools of thought as to when country music took its wrong turn in earnest to land us where we are today. Some point to the death of Marty Robbins in 1982 when all hope was lost. Some look to the Class of ’89 with Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt as the time when the commercialization of the genre found its greatest opportunity to take over. And some point to the start of Shania Twain’s career a few years later, or the release of her landmark album Up! that included a pop version to go along with the country one.
Whether Shania Twain was the instigator, or simply the one to take the incursion of pop into country to the heights we experience today, she is at least partly responsible. So the release of this long-rumored, long-awaited (by fans) comeback record wasn’t necessarily something we were betting the future of country music on, especially after waiting through 15 years, and numerous fake-outs from Shania when she promised new music soon that never materialized.
But she is still an important figure in the history of country. “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” is still a pretty good song, even if purists admit it begrudgingly. And nobody should want to see anyone fall on their face in this manner. Of course the mainstream media will portray this thing as “empowering” and a “graceful comeback” because Shaina has spent 15 years building up capital to now burn through. But sorry, this doesn’t pass the ear test, and this can be corroborated through numerous takes from many disappointed Twain fans.
Sorry, but Shania’s songs deserved better, and so did her fans and the public. Instead of setting Shania on a new future, Now seems to foretell a career that now must rely on past greatness and touring purses to survive.
1 3/4 Guns Down (2/10)
(with the only saving grace being Shania’s decent songwriting)