If there’s one good thing we can pull from 2020’s reissue slate, it’s diversity. The end of the year’s biggest box sets focused less on the typical classic-rock heavy-hitters and more on genres, eras and artists that typically don’t get the red carpet treatment. It’s a trend that would surely be nice to continue.
The new “Diamond Edition” of Shania Twain’s The Woman in Me (Mercury Nashville/UMe B0032601-02) checks off all three of those boxes, yet it’s initially an odd sell. After all, isn’t it Twain’s next album, 1997’s juggernaut Come On Over, that’s begging for a reissue? The album was released in two different mixes, and its songs were not only big on the country charts but crossover pop smashes, too. But a closer inspection of The Woman in Me proves that it deserves proper historical context, as both an underappreciated herald of the country genre’s reinvention in the ’90s and an unlikely musical partnership that made it happen.
During the ’90s, country earned something of a reappraisal in pop culture. In 1991, after Billboard implemented automated SoundScan data in their chart tabulations, Garth Brooks‘ No Fences (1990) hurtled from No. 16 to No. 4 on the album chart. That year’s Ropin’ the Wind debuted atop the Billboard 200. A year later, Billy Ray Cyrus’ line-dancing earworm “Achy Breaky Heart” became an international Top 5, and acts like Alan Jackson led a “new traditionalist” movement that modernized the honky-tonk sound for a new generation. By the end of the decade, the female trio then known as the Dixie Chicks issued two back-to-back albums to be certified diamond (more than 10 million units shipped) by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Amidst this new wave came Shania Twain, a modest but ambitious Canadian singer with a tragic backstory (she raised her siblings in her 20s after a car accident left her an orphan) and a strong work ethic. You’d be forgiven for ignoring her self-titled debut in 1993; she herself doesn’t hold it in high regard, and it’s your standard first country album for the time: heavy on hired guns from Nashville, light on personality. But nobody would have guessed the step she took to show off that personality: a collaboration with songwriter/producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. At the time, Lange was behind commercial breakthroughs for AC/DC and Def Leppard and helped construct mid-phase successes for Billy Ocean and Bryan Adams – Nashville hadn’t touched his songcraft.
But Shania bet the house on their work: their collaboration soon became personal, and within six months of meeting, they were married. And it paid off considerably: eight of the album’s 12 songs were released as singles, and seven of them placed in Billboard‘s country Top 40, including chart-toppers “Any Man of Mine,” “(If You’re Not in It for Love) I’m Outta Here!” “You Win My Love” and “No One Needs to Know.” The album reached the Top 5 of the pop charts and became Shania’s first of three back-to-back-to-back albums to earn diamond status – the only solo woman to achieve this feat.
Today’s genrefluid times, where Taylor Swift walks the line between country and pop with impunity, might obscure the quirks of The Woman in Me. Lyrically, it’s laser-focused on love – its highs, its lows, losses and discoveries – and starkly in the first person, with little of the character or narrative work that often runs through Nashville. Despite the copious pedal steel and fiddle – not to mention the presence of multiple Nashville ringers, from guitarist Dann Huff to pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins – the song structures are distinctly Mutt-like. Every piece of song is eminently hummable, down to the thunderous intros and dramatic pre-choruses. (Compare the stomping “oohs” on the beat of “Any Man of Mine” to the opening riff of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”) While the album can sag a bit in places due to its familiar through lines, Lange’s pop/rock sensibilities and Twain’s feminine twang makes for a novel combination.
Shania’s work is probably so beloved because of its malleability: her comfort with pop tropes (and an ability to make them her own) is what made her an international hitmaker in the first place. The bonus material of The Woman in Me helps drive that point home: the majority of the set’s first bonus disc features CD single-only remixes of tracks like “Whose Bed,” “Any Man of Mine” and “I’m Outta Here!” Many of them play with the balance of how much country is in each song, testing what would play on contemporary and international radio. (Among the stranger tracks: fleshed-out versions of closing a cappella snippet “God Bless the Child,” which turns a simple, from-the-heart hymn into a cheesy heal-the-world number.)
Five of the second disc’s bonus tracks, taken from Twain’s 2019 Las Vegas live residency, and the disc exclusive to the Diamond Edition – an early, unissued mix of the album from 1994 – attempt to place the singer more firmly in the country bucket. Being known for these crossover songs must carry some sort of weight for Twain; she and Lange separated in 2008 after the producer had an affair with her best friend, and she later revealed health struggles that weakened her voice. (In one of show business’ more bizarre ironies, she is now married to ex-husband of said best friend.) The presence of this “Shania vocal mix” material may be to more properly center her in the narrative – but the hard truth is, of course, that it’s hard to replicate that Mutt feeling outside of a studio. If you don’t think the songs on Woman hit quite as hard, it may not be your cup of tea.
Still, there’s no denying The Woman in Me packs a punch, and this reissue is a chance for the album to step out of the shadow of its blockbuster successors. Eve Barlow’s essay does a great job of contextualizing the record in modern-day country/pop/feminist terms, although parts of the package could benefit from more of Shania’s perspective (outside of a rote intro and two pages of personal reminiscences). There’s more than enough third-person pontificating of her place in pop culture, but when we get to a deluxe Come On Over (one can hope!), it may be a treat to get even more from her perspective.
It is possible, however, that Shania – like Taylor Swift, whose ability to spin country and pop into a monocultural frenzy makes her an heir to Twain in some respects – prefers to let her music do most of the talking. And the Diamond Edition of The Woman in Me really does have a lot to say.
Order The Woman in Me at the following links: