INTERVIEW: Shovels & Rope Excavate Domestic Demons on New Album ‘Manticore’
Early on in Manticore, the newest album from Shovels & Rope, husband-and-wife duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst call ghosts home to roost. “Did I die last night? Am I walking around?” the two sing together on the opening track “Domino,” channeling the disoriented voice of James Dean over a rollicking rockabilly beat.
What follows is a Grand Guignol of exhaustion, an unflinching examination of relationships, self-destruction and sacrifices. Many of the tracks follow a more quotidian perspective than “Domino,” but the opener provides a stunning entry point that elevates the everyday. Across Manticore, imagery of soldiers, diner waitresses and neon signs punctuate the intensely personal story of a marriage and family evolving, lending a mythic quality to the central couple’s journey.
“There’s voices of tired, good people who are enduring painful, mundane things,” says Hearst of this focus, a preoccupation with fatigue and the everyman that suggests a post-apocalyptic version of Springsteen or Tom Waits. “All these people are dignified, but they’re living indignant existences because the world is full of suffering.”
Manticore’s origins are directly informed by both an unforeseen global scale of suffering and an immersion in Americana iconography. Originally composed in New Orleans over Mardi Gras 2020 for a prospective acoustic project, the album underwent a reimagining after Trent and Hearst fled South by Southwest’s Savannah Stopover to quarantine at their home in Charleston, S.C. The pandemic left them with unlimited time to produce at The Whip, their in-home studio.
“We got a lot more time than we bargained for,” says Hearst.
The extra time allowed them to make the decision to stretch out sonically. Though many “quarantine albums” have leaned toward a stripped-down, DIY feel, Manticore channels its frustrations into a baroque, rock-infused Americana sound that exorcizes as it unfolds. “It was like, ‘time to go to the studio and bang on some stuff for a little while,’” Trent recalls. “Because what else am I gonna do?”
Also inspiring Manticore’s sound were a heavy dose of Beatles documentary binges and the couple’s interest in the teachings of Ram Dass, which create both a spiritual undercurrent and a definitive weight as the album wrestles with meaning and nihilism.
“The music isn’t ripping anybody’s heads off, but it felt like heavy metal,” says Trent. Adds Hearst with a laugh: “I think we wanted everyone to feel as tired and put-upon as we did.”
“Evolving in marriage is painful and productive,” she explains. “Hopefully it works out for the best, but it doesn’t always.”
That flip side adds tension to Manticore’s vulnerable lyrics, which explore the turmoil of maintaining a family in the face of personal demons. “I wanna be strong enough to say I ain’t afraid,” the two sing on “The Show,” in a subdued revelation after the album’s brash beginnings. “But there’s a black hole in the shape of you running around my brain.”
Hearst and Trent’s unison singing across the album adds a kinship to these confessions, as if within the music, the couple are seeing and supporting each other in real time. When they touch on the anxieties of parenthood, it’s particularly poignant. The refrain 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 aspiring dancer in “Anchor” gives the two the freedom to admit to the “long and lonely river” of constantly supporting others.
This sonic co-regulation makes for a strikingly intimate center on Manticore, and the deeply-rooted sense of love and teamwork in the Shovels & Rope project is visible across the album’s production. “I always said we were a two-headed monster,” quips Hearst of the album’s title, which was inspired by their partnership.
The cover design, a grungy collage of a manticore created by Denver design firm The Made Shop, diverges from the creature’s menacing reputation to draw inspiration from The NeverEnding Story. Theirs is a more joyful, balanced manticore flanked by a rising moon and sun, a creature that Hearst describes as “graceful and wise.”
“Cary is a Leo, and I’m a Scorpio,” adds Trent. “When you put those two together, you come up with something magical.”
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