What Makes Mandy Moore’s Return to Music So Poignant

After alleging that her ex-husband, Ryan Adams, derailed her career, the singer released her first single in a decade to address the feeling of losing control.

A still from Mandy Moore's new music video
Anyone expecting a sound akin to the smiley dance numbers and prom-ready ballads that made her famous will have to readjust expectations. (UMG Recordings)

Amanda Leigh Moore was 6 years old when she told her family that she was going to be a singer, and the dream came true faster than even the most encouraging parents could have hoped. A talent scout discovered her at age 13, and she landed a hit single, “Candy,” in 1999, when she was 15. Under the name Mandy Moore, over the course of a decade, she released six albums. As she simultaneously built an acting career, those albums captured her transformation from teen-pop product to willful singer-songwriter. “The music is all a reflection of me now, not somebody else’s choices,” she said about her most recent record, 2009’s Amanda Leigh.

Mandy Moore’s musical output then mostly stopped. Her acting continued—she’s currently in the beloved TV drama This Is Us—but outside of songs she recorded for her lead role in Disney’s 2010 fairy-tale film Tangled, there’ve been no new tunes. Onetime child stars burn out and disappear from the spotlight all the time, and many fans likely assumed that’s what happened with her. But Moore says she didn’t choose to quit music, exactly. Her explanation for where her singing career went sits among the many sad stories of stymied female ambition that have been revealed in the #MeToo era.

In 2009 Moore married the musician Ryan Adams, a prolific and critically acclaimed fixture in the alternative-rock and country scenes. Adams, Moore later said, promised to help her create her future albums. But the recorded music never materialized. A New York Times report earlier this year quoted a number of women who accused Adams of sexual impropriety and/or emotional abuse. Across the allegations, a pattern emerges in which Adams would dangle help but end up derailing his supposed protégés. Moore, in that story, said Adams essentially hijacked her career:

She was exiting her teen-pop years, and his reputation as a sensitive, authentic voice provided the artistic credibility she craved. In 2010, Adams offered to work on her next album; when she parted ways with her music manager, Adams discouraged her from working with other producers or managers, she said, effectively leaving him in charge of her music career.

They wrote songs together regularly that Adams promised to record, but never did. He booked them time at his studio, only to replace her with other female artists, she said. And he lashed out in ways that Moore came to consider psychologically abusive.

Moore also told the Times, “His controlling behavior essentially did block my ability to make new connections in the industry during a very pivotal and potentially lucrative time—my entire mid-to-late 20s.” Adams, through a lawyer, said Moore’s story was “completely inconsistent with his view of the relationship” and denied the allegations by the other women. Moore and Adams divorced in 2016, and she later remarried, to Taylor Goldsmith of the band Dawes.

Now, in 2019, her music career resumes approximately a decade after it ended. Her new single, “When I Wasn’t Watching,” not only reintroduces her appealing voice and previews a forthcoming album (its release date and title haven’t been announced). It also seems to address her hiatus—in poignant, widely relatable fashion. “I think everyone’s had the experience of feeling lost and not quite understanding how you’ve found yourself at a certain point in your life,” she said in a statement introducing the song. Knowing her recent backstory deepens the song, but it’s pretty deep on its own.

Anyone expecting a sound akin to the smiley dance numbers and prom-ready ballads that made her famous as a teenager will have to readjust their expectations: This is careful, lovely, folkie rock pop, building on a lineage running from Fleetwood Mac to Haim. Moore and the producer Mike Viola show attention to small, intriguing details, such as the drumbeat that ends each measure in a multi-thwack cul-de-sac. In the slow-circling and memorable chorus, Moore’s voice moves from a solid perch down to an ambiguous, melancholy note. A high, jingling piano line brightens up the bridge, which is the moment the mood climbs from reflective to hopeful.

The substance of that reflection is moving: grief about how life seems to have passed the singer by. “Where was I when this was going down?” she asks to start. “Maybe sleeping in, maybe outta town?” The situation she sketches resembles the one she’s described about her and Adams in the press, though there aren’t any villains in this song’s narrative. The lyrics are general enough that anyone can hear his or her own life in them, yet they’re also specific and well-drawn enough to make you wonder why there aren’t more songs about this specific feeling. She sings of losing herself in “longer days and shorter years.” That’s a sharp, impressionistic observation about the baffling way time can pass for all adults, no matter their damage. With Moore’s promising return to her original passion, may her days and years again feel full.