It’s not that Shelby Earl has been playing it safe: the Seattle singer quit a good job at Amazon a while back to put all her energy into making music, which is nothing if not daring. Yet she takes chances on her new album, pushing herself in ways she hadn’t on her first two.
Those LPs—Burn the Boats in 2011 and Swift Arrows in 2013—were vehicles for Earl’s voice, a rich and expressive instrument capable of substantial power. The Man Who Made Himself a Name is less a vehicle than a co-conspirator riding shotgun and reaching over to stomp on the accelerator. It’s a bigger, bolder collection with a rocked-up edge on songs that are more robust than her earlier work.
The first clue that she had an expansive new sound in mind came in 2015, when she teamed with the Seattle production crew the Spectacles to record “Stay With Me Tonight.” The tune was supposed to be a one-off collaboration, but the result—a sleek, seductive jam with eddies of strings and a sexy bassline—was enticing enough to lure them all back into the studio to see where else their chemistry could lead them.
The bigger tone is evident right from the start. Earl’s voice ranges from soft and conversational to booming power, and she’s accompanied on the opening title track by loose, jangling electric guitar and synths that cruise along over a propulsive rhythm. It’s full speed ahead from there. The beat rules “James”: it’s taut and solid through the verses, building to climactic refrains bristling with guitar and Earl’s ringing vocals, and then receding back to a restless invitation to move your hips. There’s a surf-y retro vibe to “The Vapors” in the bright, trebly guitar and thumping tom-tom beat, and an imposing high-octane guitar lick that opens “Chemical Hearts.”
Earl hasn’t shed all restraint: the driving acoustic guitar and resolute vocals on “Strong Swimmer” are a link to the sound of her previous albums. “Like I Do” is a wrenching gutbucket duet with Josiah Johnson of the Head and the Heart, while “Call Her Mercy” is a slow-burner with gleaming electric piano and majestic bursts of guitar framing her torchy voice as she starts with a startling suggestion: “Let’s have a baby.” At the risk of reading too much autobiography into her songs, that’s not a sentiment that Earl would have included on her previous work. They were more introspective affairs, given to confronting the fear and uncertainty that life can sometimes pile on.
Though there are still dark elements in these character sketches—the too-little, too-late attentions of the namesake suitor on “James,” say, or the overdeveloped willingness to scrap over fading love on “Boxing Gloves”—Earl mostly sounds joyful here. The bigger arrangements help in that regard: there’s an athleticism about these songs that makes it impossible to spend much time brooding over lost love or regrettable choices, rather than powering through. The Man Who Made Himself a Name shows that Earl has made it out the other side.