Shelby Earl’s first two albums earned the kind of raves any musician would kill for. Upon hearing her 2011 debut, Burn the Boats, NPR’s Ann Powers called Earl her “new favorite songwriter,” and she wasn’t alone. Accolades followed from Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal and a million music sites in between that positioned her somewhere to the left of Neko Case, a few blocks from Sharon Van Etten, catercorner to Angel Olsen.
Earl toured everywhere, playing with the likes of Loudon Wainwright, Rhett Miller, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, who spoke for many people when he said Earl had “the most heartbreakingly beautiful voice in Seattle.” Two years later, she followed up with the equally powerful Swift Arrows (produced by Damien Jurado), and returned to the touring trenches, startling audiences around the world with songs that laid bare an inner landscape full of darkness and loss, as well as the defiant resolution not to be consumed by them.
Eight years after burning her (figurative) boats to pursue life as a professional musician, quitting her job, and forging a career, Shelby Earl found that her inspiration was leading away from the darkness and anger she so fruitfully explored on those first two LPs and toward the light that would yield her third, and most accomplished record to date. That light shines through every facet of the album, from the songwriting, whose thematic concerns turn away from savage self-exploration and toward coruscating character studies, ballads, and swooning pop gems. The new songs retain her gift for a dark lyrical turn, but locate the telltale images in the context of other people. The Man Who Made Himself a Name is the sound of an artist who, having lived and chronicled some catastrophically hard times, found herself on the other side feeling happier, healthier, healed—and making music that sounded like it.