After releasing his second solo album, The Breaks, in 2014, Martin Carr underwent some trials and tribulations. Unhappy with the way the album turned out, he spent some fruitless time writing songs for other people, and was rocked by the death of David Bowie. Like many others at the time, he immersed himself in the life and work of one of his musical heroes. His takeaway was a burning desire to make music that fully expressed his thoughts and feelings. This revelation led to six months of intense work on his own, during which the basics of eight songs were finished. After a period of self-doubt and frustration, he turned to producer Greg Haver, who had helped him with the "Gold Lift" single in early 2017. Haver added some new instrumentation to the songs Carr had almost completed, and New Shapes of Life was finished. The end result is both something new, like Carr had planned, and something familiar to fans of his former band, the Boo Radleys. If Carr had felt he was writing lyrics that didn't express his true self before, here he paints a clear picture of the conflicts and struggle he was going through while writing the album, and he sings with bracing conviction. It's a change from the days of the Boos, when the words sometimes seemed secondary to the music the band created. Musically, Carr and Haver consciously make the decision to move away from the jangling dream pop of the Boos and The Breaks, and only a couple songs, like the rousing "Damocles" and the soaring "Three Studies of the Male Back," look to Carr's past for inspiration. Instead, much of the album has a modern pop sheen and it's largely guitar-free. Carr created the sounds by sampling a variety of instruments, then playing them back with a keyboard. Along with his production help, Haver added synth, percussion, and live drums, and as she has on many of Carr's records, Mary Wycherley adds backing vocals that pop up frequently over the course of the record. Regardless of the process, the pair's sophisticated sound fits the ballad-heavy album. Most tracks find Carr spilling his guts over lush piano backing with help from the female backing singers. Sometimes there are big, Coldplay-lite choruses ("The Main Man") and a little dream pop creeps in (like on the "Hotline Bling"-referencing title track), but mostly it's polished modern balladry that may satisfy Carr's need to express himself lyrically, but comes up short in the musical department. While the arrangements and production are fine, the record lacks the sonic invention that was such a big part of the Boo Radleys and Carr's post-Boos band, Brave Captain. As it stands, New Shapes of Life is a solid record that connects quite often on an emotional level, but is far too easy to tune out and shift to the background, something that can almost never be said about any of Carr's previous work.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra