Happy 10th Anniversary to Mandy Moore’s sixth studio album Amanda Leigh, originally released May 26, 2009.
Having kept the public transfixed with their professional moves and personal effects for a decade, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera defied the odds to manifest credible careers separate from the late 1990s pre-fab pop boom they both hailed from. With all eyes on Spears and Aguilera, mainstream audiences might have missed out on another successful, if subtle musical reinvention which occurred parallel to the vocational gains of those two women.
Beginning with her fourth album Coverage (2003), vocalist-actress Mandy Moore tapped the canons of XTC, Elton John and Carly Simon—amongst others—as sources to fuel her first hard reset on the bubblegum origins of her recording career. The collection also positioned Moore as a persuasive interpreter with good taste. It’s successor—her fifth album Wild Hope (2007)—took a bigger step forward in proving that Moore was capable of original thought as a songwriter. Neither of these efforts curried favor on the charts, but ultimately, they liberated Moore from the critical perception that she was more product than artist. Moore’s sixth LP Amanda Leigh—its designation taken from Moore’s actual birth name—would continue to expound on the reconstructionist principles set forth on Coverage and Wild Hope.
While leading on all eleven of the song scripts that appear on Amanda Leigh, Moore does not shy away from collaboration; the diminutive network of musicians and secondary writing partners puts Moore in august company. Mike Viola, a dynamic writer and instrumentalist in his own right, pilots the record’s production. Additionally, he tasks alongside Moore as a co-writer on all but one composition. Two other co-writers—pop-folk chanteuses Lori McKenna and Inara George—contribute sparingly; McKenna had previously assisted Moore on the recording for Wild Hope.
Not too distant from the passionate study of life and love that dominated its predecessor, the content of Amanda Leigh is sharper, more luminous. Moore traverses the joyful, if occasionally neurotic work of self-exploration and improvement on “Fern Dell” and “Song About Home.” These entries point to Moore’s skills as writer who can frame her lyrics either through metaphor or plain speech without falling into the clichés that can plague such ambitious song building.
Regarding the ever-topical states of amorous attraction, Moore swings between acerbic flirtation (“I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week”) and free-spoken enthusiasm (“Bug”). But, some of the best tracks on Amanda Leigh plot a more nuanced course along the emotional spectrum as “Love to Love Me Back” and “Indian Summer” attest in all their melancholic splendor. The muse for these intimate compositions comes from her courtship with her first husband (then fiancée), the troubled troubadour Ryan Adams.
Animating these sonic stories are their kaleidoscopic musical arrangements and Moore’s captivating voice. The former element has Viola employing a rich panoply of instruments—guitar (primarily acoustic), brass, piano, strings, harpsichord, woodwinds, drums—fitted to each composition as their respective narratives dictate.
“Merrimack River”—the opening number for the album later to be reprised at Amanda Leigh’s midpoint as a lush instrumental—displays Viola’s exciting producer’s method as he casts the avant-garde berceuse solely in guitar pizzicato and strings. This gives the track an “ebb and flow” gravitas—like a tide arriving and departing from a shore—and establishes a high standard for the rest of the long player. Moore eagerly meets it on the early ‘70’s pop-jazz homage of “Pocket Philosopher,” the dense alt-chamber music of “Everblue” and all the other corresponding song pieces that hang together beautifully as a complete package.
And while none of the material here masks Moore’s affection for her songcraft influences that range from the Carpenters to Elvis Costello, she makes everything on this song cycle her own by way of her versatile singing. She cuts a balladic figure on “Indian Summer,” slips into something with a bit more bite as heard on “Nothing Everything,” and drops into an enchanting harmony form (with Viola) on “Merrimack River”—and she makes it all work.
Released by Storefront Records on May 26, 2009, Amanda Leigh yielded Moore another round of critical high marks, a welcome continuance from Coverage and Wild Hope, but its sales were demure. A limited tour for Amanda Leigh did ensue in the year of its release only to be followed by a decade-long sabbatical from music.
In that ten-year interval, Moore’s acting engagements came steadily. But as she recently revealed, her turbulent marriage to Adams dealt major blows to her creative confidence as a singer-songwriter. Since her divorce from the former Whiskeytown frontman in 2015, Moore has stated that her return to music is soon to happen.
There’s no question that Moore can—and will—match the remarkable quality of Amanda Leigh with her forthcoming seventh studio album, whenever it surfaces. However, Amanda Leigh isn’t likely to ever lose any of its transportive potency; it will stand as firm evidence that Moore’s creative rebirth sixteen years ago wasn’t a fluke, but an intentional move for artistic autonomy that was completely realized on this project.