Release Date: Jul 24, 2015
Record label: Warner Music
Genre(s): Country, Contemporary Country, Country-Pop
The title The Blade suggests a certain flintiness from Ashley Monroe and while there's little question she's tough, she wraps that steeliness underneath a smooth surface -- a feint that means her songs sigh as often as they slight, sometimes revealing their intent only after they've wormed their way into the subconscious. This is truer of The Blade than it is of 2013's Like a Rose, partially due to how it's a grander, lusher revision of her major-label solo debut, constructed out of similar elements -- and with the same sympathetic producers, Vince Gill and Justin Niebank -- but covering greater ground. Some of this is a mere matter of length: at 13 tracks and 46 minutes, it's a quarter longer than the breezy Like a Rose.
Ashley Monroe has, for the most part, been relegated to something of a support role in her career. The Tennessee native has worked as a backup singer for Jack White, helped add fuel the meteoric success of Miranda Lambert by co-writing the No. 1 country single “Heart Like Mine” and joining her friend in the supergroup Pistol Annies, and featured on Blake Shelton’s huge 2014 hit “Lonely Tonight.” On her own, Monroe has garnered some critical accolades and the respect of her peers, but little movement commercially.
Ashley Monroe refuses to choose sides in the feud between commercial country and the "alt" variety. Her third LP imagines a 2015 mainstream by reflecting what it once was — Loretta and Dolly in the Sixties, sure, but also Emmylou in the Eighties and Reba in the Nineties. Witness the title track, which flips a shopworn love-hurts metaphor ("You caught it by the handle/And I caught it by the blade") into a polished ballad that bares its scars right through to the final, pained "baby." The song is all impeccable phrasing and sweet-tea tone; its brilliance is almost a dare, refusing to dangle radio-bait carrots or Twitter-bait punchlines.
Ashley Monroe’s latest release, The Blade, bests her previous effort Like A Rose by a long shot. Coming from someone who fell in love with Like A Rose’s tales of sweet rebellion and vulnerability, that’s a big deal. But now Monroe’s melodies are thicker, her lyrics more pointed, and her presence more palpable. Surrounded by mirrors, she surveys us from the cover of The Blade, eyeliner layered on black, a sweep of edginess noticeably absent from both the sound and artwork of her preceding albums.
If it feels like Ashley Monroe had two debut albums, it’s because it’s sort of true. Or perhaps even three debuts. It started nine years ago, when her debut album Satisfied was scheduled for release by Columbia Records, actually released online for a quick second, but then cancelled. It had a digital release elsewhere two years later, so still was her proper debut, but didn’t exactly get the promotional push originally intended.
In retrospect, it was inevitable that Ashley Monroe would re-record "Has Anybody Ever Told You?" The song has been in her repertoire for nearly a decade, and has long been her signature tune. She first recorded it back in the late '00s, when she was an upstart from Knoxville and when Nashville had even less time for young female singer-songwriters than it does now. Monroe had signed to Sony, which in a no-faith vote had released her debut, 2009's Satisfied, digitally instead of physically.
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.
The first cut on Ashley Monroe’s The Blade is far from its deepest: The poppy opener “On To Something Good” serves as a fleeting note of tentative optimism for everything that follows to reverberate out and away from. The majority of Monroe’s superb third album hunkers down with heartache and struggle. The slow-burn title track reveals itself as this set’s true stunner, offering a powerful metaphor for the damage done by a failed relationship.
Ashley Monroe’s new record, “The Blade,” begins on a radio-friendly note with “On to Something Good,” a piece of hooky contemporary country. Moments later, with “Bombshell,” things swing in a different direction. Built on the lyrical germ of facing the decision to break up a relationship, the song is modern-style hard country music, with resonating steel guitar and Monroe’s voice keening her pain over how and when to do the deed.
It’s completely possible that Ashley Monroe watched the recent controversy in country music about the presence and power of female singers at the genre’s center — or lack thereof — with a shrug. For years now, she’s essentially opted out of discussions like that in favor of making impressive small-scale music that answers only to itself, and to country’s varied history, not its narrow present. In 2013, she released the elegantly scarred “Like a Rose,” a striking album that showed her to be a sly, progressive songwriter and a nimble, tradition-minded singer.