Ashley Monroe steps into a world of harm and grief, seeking ways forward.
The biblical sparrows from the book of Matthew are cared for and beloved, but they still fall to the ground. Great care and great hurt aren’t mutually exclusive. With Sparrow, her fourth album, Ashley Monroe steps into a world of harm and grief, seeking ways forward, whether through forgiveness or understanding or simply processing regret. She sorts through religious imagery (heaven, angels, and kingdom keys all appear), but finds both meaning and transcendence in other ways. Working with producer Dave Cobb, Monroe builds her songs on countrypolitan orchestration, artistically nodding to a musical past as she grapples with a thematic one.
The chorus of opener “Orphan” provides the album’s central moment: “Nobody told me what I should do/ When the world starts to rumble and shake under you.” Monroe tries to keep her balance in a tumultuous life, and much of the album deals with both the shaking and the steadiness. Vocals and strings trade statements and disappointments as the track winds through uncertainty, an arrangement ideal for the song’s sentiment. Monroe responds to those worries with the more up-tempo “Hard on a Heart.” Shifting to a sound indebted to ‘70s pop, she tells her heart, “We’ve got to move on.” The only way forward is to go forward, and Monroe’s going to push on as necessary.
With its subtle melodies, mid-tempo tracks and consistent orchestration, the album risks repetitiveness. Monroe’s songwriting and vocal skills are both too good for that, but even so, her songs – gorgeous as they are individually – can run together. Given its Bobbie Gentry/Dusty Springfield throwback sounds, Sparrow benefits from any sort of variance. “She Wakes Me Up” isn’t the most affecting song on the album, but its change of pace helps the disc keep its footing.
Maybe for that reason, “Hands on You” stands out, although it would be one of the most striking songs of the year even on its own. The more soulful track comes with a sultrier arrangement. Monroe’s lyrics, rather than providing a straightforward narrative of lust, push into more complicated territory. Starting with such lines as “I wish I would have laid my hands on you” and “I wish I would have pushed you,” it mixes hints of aggression and violence with sexual desire. The song seems to regret not making a “half-drunk,” stoned mistake. It’s a foray into passion laden with consent and responsibility questions, yet its earnest desire carries the song. It also anticipates the intense “Wild Love,” another track with strings that develop the eroticism of the lyrics, drawing more from later Stax than Nashville.
After tracing desire, heartbreak, and grief, the disc closes with “Keys to the Kingdom,” in which Monroe constructs a personalized paradise. Instead of a harp, this one comes with “a haunted guitar.” Instead of choirs of angels, this one has “Elvis singing about Jesus.” It sounds pleasant, but the presence of Monroe’s father lends extra poignancy. That Marilyn Monroe is there as Norma Jean adds grace. Ultimately, it’s a place of abundance, as Monroe follows each list of what or who is there with “and then some.” That sort of desire comes out of the hurt that the rest of the album has worked through, offering a vision not just of forgiveness or even reconciliation, but of more, of an experience that comes only when you and your hard-ridden heart can move on.