If anyone’s going to make a countrypolitan record in 2018, let it be Ashley Monroe—who, as a singer, songwriter, and record-maker, is unparalleled at finding common ground between country traditionalism and country modernism. Maybe it’s a byproduct of her age. At 31, Monroe is much too young to be a first-generation fan of Willie or Loretta, let alone Hank; she makes records that suggest she came by her inclusivity honestly, immersing herself in the hard stuff (Waylon and Merle), the pop stuff (Bobbie Gentry and Glenn Campbell), and the contemporary stuff (Shania and the Dixie Chicks, let’s say) all at once, and has no interest in acknowledging any hierarchies or demarcations therein. Her 2015 album The Blade remains a master class in time travel, a record where bubbly country-pop hooks happily coexist with austere C&W, and Sparrow is a more subtle and sophisticated record still. Working with producer Dave Cobb, Monroe both upholds tradition while reshaping it in her own image, wielding countrypolitan’s brazen, string-laden emotionalism—big, sweeping arrangements made to haul buried feelings to the surface—with therapeutic precision: Her aim is excavation, not pageantry, and she uses the colors of the orchestra to illuminate the contours of the human heart. She’s just the right songwriter to tackle a record like this—one that’s deeply felt but never saccharine or maudlin—and she’s also just the right singer: A veteran of the Grand Ole Opry, Monroe can be performative without being showy; she inhabits her characters without chewing the scenery. Her nuance and precision bring these songs everywoman appeal: She convinces us that these stories are he own, but also makes it easy for us to hear ourselves in them.
It’s fortuitous timing that, just as Kacey Musgraves situates country’s pop inclinations within the broader tradition of honky-tonk plainspeak, Monroe resurrects its opulent and theatrical side for an album that’s haunted by trauma, blood inheritance, and loss. The opener, “Orphan,” uses orchestral bombast as emotional ballast, and recalls the pomp and sentiment of a classic Isaac Hayes or Scott Walker arrangement. It turns out to be a little bit of a red herring: Proving early on that they can pull off an old-school weeper, Monroe and Cobb mostly apply a light touch to these 12 songs, using lush orchestrations to rich and varied effect. They bring an expressionistic verve to “Wild Love,” which drips with romantic opulence, as if to mirror the insatiable desire in the lyrics, and they conjure the dusty, widescreen pop of Elton John circa Tumbleweed Connection on songs like “Rita.” “Hands on You” deftly deploys orchestral accents atop its slinky R&B groove, connecting Monroe’s music to country-soul. “Paying Attention” is country music dressed up as chamber folk, subtle string accents recalling albums like Beck’s Sea Change as much as they do Bobbie Gentry’s records. Both direct and multi-layered, Sparrow has the sturdy craft of a classic and a casual eclecticism born of the streaming age; it feels timeless but never retro, born of a particular lineage but never beholden to it.
Monroe wrote these songs (with a murder’s row of co-authors, among them Anderson East) while pregnant with her first child, and on the heels of therapy. She was just a teenager when she lost her father, and her mother flitted in and out of her life, two realities that factor prominently on an album that opens with a song called “Orphan” before moving into “Mother’s Daughter” and eventually “Daddy I Told You.” This is an album concerned with lineage and blood, with how the past shapes us and scars us. And so the great tragedy of “Mother’s Daughter”—a song for lovers, leavers, and drifters—isn’t that the mother is a wandering spirit, but that the daughter fears it’s a family trait. “Orphan” pulls out all the stops, not only with its lush orchestration but with its lyrics, gently touching on country and gospel tropes to convey the feeling of being totally rudderless in a world darkened of guiding lights. (God’s eye is on the sparrow, an old spiritual tells us, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s a comforting or an ironic evocation in a song that feels so utterly alone.) Even the Belle de Jour daydream “Hands on You” tangles with the past and its reverberations, idly grasping at a missed opportunity. And on “Hard on a Heart,” Monroe plays the wayfaring stranger, giving her traveling companion a pep talk: “I know there’s no turnin’ back/ The damage is done/ You know all we’ve gotta do, me and you/ We’ve gotta move on.” The twist is that she’s talking into a mirror, and indeed, the key to Sparrow is that it’s not a breakup or heartache record: It’s a reckoning with the self, and a portrait of the artist as the sum of all her tragedies and her triumphs, the battles she’s lost and the scars she’s won, the sins of her parents and her own road to redemption. It ends with “Keys to the Kingdom,” a dream of heaven, where Elvis is singin’ ‘bout Jesus and there’s rest for all the weary sinners. It’s a song that looks forward in hope: Here the singer’s moving out of the past, and she’s on to something good.