At the beginning of ManticoreShovels & Rope’s latest album, husband and wife duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst call ghosts to roost. “Did I die last night? Am I walking? the two sing together on the opening track “Domino”, channeling James Dean’s bewildered vocals over a frenzied rockabilly beat.
What follows is a Grand Guignol of exhaustion, an unflinching examination of relationships, self-destruction and sacrifice. Many tracks follow a more everyday perspective than “Domino”, but the opener offers a stunning entry point that elevates the everyday. On the other side Manticoreimages of soldiers, restaurant waitresses and neon signs punctuate the intensely personal story of an evolving marriage and family, lending a mythical quality to the central couple’s journey.
“There are voices of good, tired people enduring painful, mundane things,” Hearst says of this focus, a concern for fatigue and the common man who suggests a post-apocalyptic version of Springsteen or Tom. Waits. “All of these people are worthy, but they live indignant lives because the world is filled with suffering.”
ManticoreThe origins of are directly informed by both an unforeseen global scale of suffering and an immersion in American iconography. Originally composed in New Orleans for Mardi Gras 2020 for a forward-looking acoustic project, the album was reinvented after Trent and Hearst fled South by Southwest’s Savannah Stopover to quarantine at their home in Charleston, SC La pandemic left them unlimited time to produce at The Whip, their home studio.
“We had a lot longer than expected,” Hearst says.
The extra time allowed them to make the decision to stretch sonically. Although many “quarantine albums” have leaned towards a stripped-down DIY feel, Manticore channels its frustrations into a baroque sound steeped in American rock that exorcises itself as it unfolds. “It was like, ‘it’s time to go to the studio and bang some stuff for a little while,'” Trent recalled. “Because what else am I going to do?”
Also inspiring ManticoreThe sound of was a heavy dose of Beatles documentary frenzy and the couple’s interest in the teachings of Ram Dass, which create both a spiritual undercurrent and a definitive weight as the album struggles with meaning. and nihilism.
“The music isn’t tearing anyone’s head off, but it sounded like heavy metal,” Trent says. Hearst adds with a laugh, “I think we wanted everyone to feel as tired and abused as we do.”
“Growing through marriage is painful and productive,” she explains. “I hope it works out for the best, but it doesn’t always.”
This setback adds tension to ManticoreVulnerable lyrics, which explore the turmoil of maintaining a family in the face of personal demons. “I want to be strong enough to say I’m not afraid” the two sing on “The Show,” in a subdued reveal after the album’s brash debut. “But there’s a black hole in the shape of you spinning around my brain.”
Hearst and Trent’s singing in unison throughout the album adds a kinship to these confessions, as if in the music the pair see and support each other in real time. When they address the anxieties of parenthood, it’s particularly poignant. The chorus of “you are the best part” in “Bleed Me” echoes the album’s dedication to their children, while a metaphorical character study of a sex worker and an aspiring dancer in “Anchor” gives both the freedom to admit the “long and lonely river” to constantly support others.
This sonic co-regulation creates a surprisingly intimate focus on Manticore, and the deeply rooted sense of love and teamwork in the Shovels & Rope project is visible through the production of the album. “I’ve always said we were a two-headed monster,” Hearst quips about the album’s title, inspired by their partnership.
The cover design, a grungy collage of a manticore created by Denver design firm The Made Shop, strays from the creature’s menacing reputation for inspiration from The never-ending story. Theirs is a more cheerful and balanced manticore flanked by a rising moon and sun, a creature Hearst describes as “graceful and wise”.
“Cary is Leo and I am Scorpio,” Trent adds. “When you combine these two elements, you get something magical.”
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