Release Date: July 24, 2015
Label: Warner Bros. Nashville
The singer and writer of the most exquisite sighs in modern country, Ashley Monroe doesn’t come off as a mope. Her high, fluting voice projects a steadiness and good cheer that belie the heaps of alcoholic stupors and broken relationships in her songs. At first she seemed the simplest of the Pistol Annies, the power trio comprised of hellion Miranda Lambert and miniaturist Angaleena Presley. Her sophomore album, Like a Rose, changed that: a collection of excellent plaints produced by Vince Gill during that spring of 2013 when Kacey Musgraves commanded the headlines. Within minutes Like a Rose sounded like a classic. I’ve heard the title track pop up in wedding playlists twice in ten months.
A couple of wooly moments aside, Monroe’s third album, The Blade, continues a remarkable hot streak for writers Luke Laird, Jessi Alexander, Chris Stapleton, and Monroe herself. Gill’s back too, embellishing the tracks with slide guitars and minor-key harmonies. Those expecting Lambert-style barnburners should forget it. Gauzier and slower than the competition, The Blade has more in common with Alan Jackson’s Like Red on a Rose and Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From, the peaks of 21st-century neoclassical country.
The Blade starts with two bangers: “On to Something Good,” swirling Nashville bubble-disco à la Juice Newton; and “I Buried Your Love Alive,” powered by a giant brontosaurs riff but palliated by unnecessary acoustic guitar. The third number, “Bombshell,” is nothing of the sort. The other inert track, “From Time to Time,” is hack roots rock, pretty and meaningless.
Hang on to that descriptor. Embraced by soreheads as a balm, roots rock prizes literary distinction over a well-wrought mess; it alludes to an American songbook without noting that many entries are coarser than memory suggests. On top of which, the rhythms are staid when they don’t flat-out suck. Repeatedly on The Blade the thickness of the drum mix and Monroe’s talent for weighing words saves tracks from pressed-flower death. The title track brilliantly demonstrates how to inhabit a conceit. “If Love Was Fair” offers a shimmering Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac guitar figure and a too-rare exhibition of Monroe’s lower register. And “I’m Good at Leavin’,” co-written with Lambert, uses its lilt and mocking pedal-steel lines in as effective a closer as there’s been this year.
There have been good neoclassical country records this decade: Kellie Pickler’s 2012 100 Proof, Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’ released last year. Its modest strokes a sign of assurance, The Blade is at their level. Think maybe Monroe can keep this up through 2039? Lots of weddings between now and then.