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. More of an under-cover-of-night release, easy to miss. Two years later, Monroe made an impression as part of the trio Pistol Annies, with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley, though it was Lambert, the biggest name, who garnered the headlines.
2013 was different. It felt like her first real moment in the spotlight. Pistol Annies’ second album, plus the tours that had preceded it, had put her more out in the public eye. And then her second album Like a Rose was released to deserved attention and critical claim. So essentially her latest, The Blade, is her first album that can’t be construed as a debut. It’s also the first that doesn’t feel like a debut. It’s coming from a place of confidence in talent, of assurance in what she’s doing.
The album begins with “On to Something Good”: a note of confident optimism, or optimistic confidence. The song should be a summertime genre hit, a diversion from the dudes with trucks by the lake. It sounds like a happy song, but she still acknowledges the slipperiness of happiness, the struggle to get there and how quickly it can disappear. “I’m better dancing when I don’t look down”. he sings. And, “I’ll ride this train ‘til it runs out of track”, sung in a way that feels like running out of track is inevitable. You hear the song and first focus on the ‘feeling good’. But in reality, what she express is more like this – I feel like I’m on to something good…but who knows, maybe not. What the heck, I should enjoy it while I can.
It’s hard to overstate the confidence in her singing, on this song and the album. It’s tangible on the surface, making her approach on the two previous albums seem almost timid. Confidence is a keyword for The Blade..
The album at first seems like ‘let me show you what I can do’, in the way she continually switches styles. She slips into a bluesy stomper with menace (“I Buried Your Love Alive”) and then a quiet show-stopper of a leaving song, “Bombshell”. It musically emulates the uneasy calm before the chaos, when the bombshell ‘I can’t love you anymore’ is dropped on someone. The lyrics probe the inner psychology of it. How do I steel myself for a moment like this, the song asks and describes.
Soon there are other skilled genre exercises, like the bouncy “Winning Streak”, which puts power and ease around a perfect cliche (“if losing’s a game / I’m on a winning streak”). “Weight of the Load”, though co-written with producer Vince Gill, is a Kelly Willis-song in waiting if I ever heard one. The closing number “I’m Good at Leaving” readily betrays the fact that Miranda Lambert was one of the co-writers, or at least resembles something she might herself attempt. Its protagonist is “just following a feeling”, like every rambling country protagonist ever.
The title track stops the album slow with drama heightened by metaphor that feels visceral. It’s the flip side of “Bombshell”, the psychology this time of the person on the receiving end. His leaving and the way he communicates it feels like a razor around her heart — “you caught it by the handle / and I caught it by the blade.” The basic premise here is unmistakable: in love there’s always a chance that someone will end up bleeding. The song is devastating, and she captures that devastation succinctly: “For you it’s over / for me it’s not.”
As The Blade proceeds, its variety coalesces a bit, not just around presenting the singer’s mastery of her craft (in this moment in time more even than before), but around these up-and-down emotions; optimism and devastation, love and heartbreak; generosity and self-preservation. The second half of the album reveals some great ‘hidden’ gems along those lines. “If Love Was Fair” is light and breezy, though its prevailing sentiment, of course, is that love isn’t fair. That lightness represents what might be, the hope for perfection that only exists in our imagination. The song after it, “Has Anybody Ever Told You”, takes the delicate, pretty side of that song and outdoes it, in exquisite ways, in service to a song filled to the brim with longing.
“If the Devil Don’t Want Me” frames the album’s desire and disappointment in iconic terms fitting the genre’s history: “if the devil don’t want me / where the hell do I go?” On paper that line seems almost like a joke, but out of her mouth it’s like the most serious question there is, a distillation of pain and confusion filtered through neon lights and jukeboxes full of honkytonk anthems that have asked similar tough questions over the decades…knowing there will be no answer. It’s less a question than a cry of pain. The Blade is full of them, and they sound splendid.