First Impressions: Ashley Monroe, The Blade

thebladeAn album of deep fracture, most of its songs resembling crime scenes, The Blade opens with an optimism that sounds like it could bubble over and carry the rest of the record along with it: “On to Something Good” is sunny pop—classic country, assuming your history of country only stretches back to 1990 or so—and it might seem like a feint or a false promise were it not for the singer’s conviction: Ashley Monroe delivers it like a dare, a fragment of sunshine to pocket and carry with us through the record’s twists. And twist it does, literally so on the title track, wherein romance turns to betrayal and love into a two-edged sword: “You got it by the handle,” the singer sighs, standing amidst the wreckage, “I got it by the blade.” Monroe is such an ace singer and songwriter that a perfect metaphor like that one isn’t even the highlight of the album, and she often says the most when she doesn’t say much at all: “Bombshell” trembles and jitters at the thought of dropping an unpleasant truth; note that the song doesn’t actually reveal what said bombshell happens to be. My first assumption was infidelity; yours may be something different. It ultimately doesn’t matter: “It’ll never be a good time to drop a bombshell,” coos Monroe, and it’s not hard to hear it as a song of experience. Even the songs that sound totally put-together reveal tattered ends and razor edges: “Had anybody ever told you/ That they’d be lucky just to know you?” one song goes, but what sounds like a song about intimacy is actually a song about separation: It affirms the beauty of the Beloved while damning the singer’s hesitation. The subtlety of these songs provides context for Monroe’s dips into mythology and drama: “Dixie” is a song about leaving the South, but really it’s a song about hopping the next train to leave your past and your memories behind, to start anew. (She ain’t leaving ‘cause of the weather, the singer assures us.) “I Buried Your Love Alive” mirrors it in its resolve to put heartache and hurt six feet under, while “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” conjures country tropes and gothic folklore to convey the deepest despair of all: What if even my acts of self-destruction don’t make the longing go away? There’s humor here, too, as there must be on an album that leans so far in to embrace the hurt of love and the ache of desire: “Winning Streak” is about a loser, and it breezes by in feisty self-deprecation, while the closing “I’m Good at Leavin’” looks for a silver lining. I could go on and on about the songs, but let me also mount this theory: Maybe the real reason it’s called The Blade is because it walks with such poise along the razor’s edge of country authenticity and country pop: Monroe can do breezy country folk (check “Mayflowers”), outlaw swagger (“Dixie”), or backporch twang (“Winning Streak”) without sounding self-conscious and without sacrificing melody; she can turn toward soft rock and unabashed pop without pandering. (Listen to this and then go back to Platinum, and tell me Miranda couldn’t have swung for the charts without anything so dire as “Somethin’ Bad.”) Here’s how your experience with this brilliant album will go: The first time through, it’ll just be fun. Three or four listens in, the songs will start to cut you—deep. Eventually you’ll realize that country and Americana records don’t have to be self-serious or fetishize “rootsiness” to sound real, and the heavy stuff lands better when there’s a joke or two thrown in. And, that for right now, nobody does this stuff better than Ashley Monroe.

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2 comments

  1. Love the album and Ashley. Kacey got a push for Best Album- I hope that the industry/label can do that for Ashley Monroe this year. This is the time, people. Also no need to throw shade at Miranda. She sings backup on The Blade w/ Ash and co-wrote I’m Good at Leavin’. Anyway Ashley did an EXCELLENT job in this album. She deserves to get some much needed recognition.

    1. Leigh, I LOVE Miranda more than I love anyone else in country music– no disrespect intended! I just thought there was one regard in which Monroe one-ups her– no small feat.

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