Longing, Forgiveness Swell In Ashley Monroe's 'Sparrow'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
When an artist frames a new album as the product of therapy, we've learned to expect a work of acute self-examination, unreserved confrontation or potent purging whose songs feel like they were inspired by highly individualized experiences and emotions.
Ashley Monroe's Sparrow feels like something else entirely. She began the promotion cycle for her Dave Cobb-produced fourth album by telling NPR that many of its dozen songs came on the heels of "an intense therapy-athon," during which she "dealt with things that happened in my childhood, and forgiveness for my mother, forgiveness for myself, all these deep emotions." But she didn't treat her songwriting as an occasion to burrow into solitary journaling.
Age-wise, the criminally underappreciated singer and songwriter falls midway between her sometime Pistol Annies bandmate Miranda Lambert and definitive millennial voice Kacey Musgraves, both of whom took their most recent albums in self-reflective directions. But Monroe is also attuned to country's capacity for sentimentality, pining, tragedy and weighty melancholy in a way that links her to celebrated song interpreters a generation ahead of her, like Vince Gill (who's written with her since her teens and produced her last two albums), Alison Krauss and Lee Ann Womack — singers who aim for great feeling and finesse in their performances and seldom signal that they're singing about themselves.
While Monroe surely mines her own stories in some of these songs — she's spoken here and there of the premature death of her father and intermittent absence of her mother — she tends to apply her lived experience in a way that deepens, but doesn't dominate, her patient phrasing, exquisite intonation and feathery note-bending drawing from a deep well of anguish.
She took pleasure in telling this interviewer that Krauss rang her up in tears upon hearing "Orphan," the album's opening track. And it's no wonder that the plaintive waltz would elicit that response. Monroe artfully updates a historic ballad tradition that casts orphaned children as pitiable creatures, maintaining a steady gaze on the painfully precarious existence she's describing. "Nobody told me what I should do / When the world starts to rumble and shake under you," she sighs in a graceful, aching lilt over cresting strings. When she draws poetic contrasts between a child and a fledgling sparrow fending for themselves, it's as though she's mirroring oft-quoted scriptures that use birds as metaphors for divine nurture and inspired a beloved gospel hymn, but distrusts their promised comfort.
The sparkling, Bobbie Gentry-ish pop-soul arrangement of "Mother's Daughter" gently veils the lyrics' skepticism about the sturdiness of relational bonds and fear of inheriting destructive patterns. "Staying forever is a promise that nobody can keep," Monroe declares ruefully, before concluding the next stanza with an even more haunting sentiment: "Staying forever is the biggest lie she'll ever believe." In the winsome "Daddy I Told You," she clings, with adult self-awareness, to the innocence of vows made in childhood: "Daddy I told you I was gonna fly / I'd get out of that town alive / Don't worry, I kept your name / And your picture in a frame." In "Keys to the Kingdom," a vision of music offering spiritual reunion with long-gone loved ones, the melody turns soft curlicues, then briefly dips down to low, pensive notes.
Monroe also dwells on sensual longing. Her use of the qualifier "this" in the gliding country-soul ballad "This Heaven" suggests from the start that it's bodily pleasures, not another realm, that she has in mind. "Paying Attention," a pillowy, orchestrated pop number with a beguilingly bruised melody, captures an excruciating merging of regret and desire. She broods over unfulfilled fantasies in "Hands on You," and gives herself over to breathless craving in "Wild Love," whose sleek bass pulse and busy, cursive strings conjure the disco era. That's even truer of "Hard On a Heart," with its sleek, unbroken groove. But in her hands, these elements of blissfully escapist fare are vehicles for an interior dialogue with woundedness.
What Monroe's accomplished with Sparrow is both subtle and breathtaking: She's bent her fluency in the communal languages of folk, country, gospel and pop toward powerfully personal expression. Be prepared to be swept up.