REVIEW: Ashley Monroe – ‘Sparrow’

To be honest, it’s a burning question on everyone’s mind, ‘how is Ashley Monroe going to top Grammy nominated album The Blade?’ Yes, we’ve all been thinking it since ‘Sparrow’ was announced to be released on the upcoming 20thApril. Well, let me tell you, I think she’s actually gone and done it. Sparrow is painstakingly, heart achingly, flawless.

After listening to Sparrow, it is clear Monroe’s musical sense has matured, her maternal instincts seem to have helped to heal her own heartache. Resulting in Monroe becoming this confident, risque, emotive woman. The songs on the album showcase everything Ashley has spoken about openly and admitted she has struggled with, such as her father’s death that shook her early childhood. ‘Daddy, I told you’ and ‘This Heaven’ delve deeply in to this topic but we’ll get back to that later. Let’s start from the beginning.

Sparrow I feel takes a journey, from helpless to fearless – after all, a sparrow is often known to symbolize self worth and freedom. The opening track is ‘Orphan’, which if anyone was in attendance, Ashley debuted at Bush Hall in London back in March 2016. Then, was when I fell in love with this song and I think it is my favourite from the record. It tells the story of a lost soul and how you have no choice but to find your way in times of desperation.The empathetic lyrical imagery of nature causes you to feel as lost as an orphan would amongst the wild. ‘How does a sparrow, know more than I? When it’s mother is gone, it learns how to fly.’ Orphan also introduces the abundance of strings we hear throughout the record. Sparrow holds a heavy orchestral feel, a masterpiece of dramatic, sumptuous strings undoubtedly lead the 12 tracked record. The heavy sound yields masses of musical emotion, the kind we haven’t yet heard from Monroe on her previous 3 albums. The string arrangements play a huge part in 80% of the songs, perhaps directing Sparrow a bit more into the Americana genre, which Ashley has received huge praise for so far, after the releases of ‘Hands on You’, ‘Paying Attention’ and ‘Wild Love’.

In true Ashley Monroe style, only a couple of upbeat songs feature, including ‘Mother’s Daughter’ and ‘She Wakes Me Up.’ Both seem to be praising strong female roles in Monroe’s life. ‘Mother’s Daughter’ telling the story that i’m sure many young women can relate to, of becoming more like your mother as you become of age, notoriously against your will ‘and she’ll deny it, now that he’s no longer, she’s her mother’s daughter, until the day she dies.’ Where as ‘She Wakes Me Up’ seems to be longing for the warmth of someone the protagonist has lost, but also could this track have come to life when Monroe was pregnant? Maybe she was suspecting a daughter. Curiosity breaches with this one, it’ll be interesting to hear Ashley’s explanation on release.

‘This heaven that i’m holding, is holding me tight.’ A simple but gut wrenching lyric, again touching on pregnancy. ‘This Heaven’ is an ode to Monroe’s son, but also to her late father. The ballad lead by keys, introduces the bass at the second verse whilst the strings remain outstanding till the very end of the song. Proceeding to have have an intense impact. Getting metaphorical, in this such case the introduction of strings so late in the song could be a representation of the father, as in his presence is always felt in times of need.

Even though Ashley has always been a deep songwriter in terms of her lyrics being truthful and autobiographical, she revealed in interviews prior to the album’s release, “I was unpacking a lot of stuff, to methis record is about acknowledging past hurt, forgiveness and freedom to move forward.” So, of course, it is going to bring up the obscure, dark feelings that were buried before. ‘Daddy I Told You’ utters this exactly, a sentimental love letter with authentic lyrics such as ‘brother’s having babies, mother’s getting strong, things are changing’. This song seems to show a true form of how Monroe uses songwriting as therapy per say. This track shows the more vulnerable side of Monroe, or as you could say, the Ashley we more commonly know judging from her previous albums. On ‘Sparrow’ vulnerability is a sparse listen, as we’ve mentioned the album is dominated by a tenacious, mature woman.

‘Hands on You’ and ‘Wild Love’ tracks we have already heard are perhaps the more commercial on the record, they definitely hold Monroe’s sultry more seductive side as the subject matter is the lust for intimacy (see my previous review for ‘Hands on You’). Finally ending the album with Ashley’s way of showing gratitude in the best way she knows how, in song form. ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ tells the story of how Monroe came to do what she does. How music and spirituality was embedded into her soul – ‘I was given a haunted guitar, and it made me sing every song it ever wrote and then some.’

It’s no secret Ashley Monroe is one of the best writers and singers in country music, but also the most under appreciated. Listening to how this album has been put together so masterfully under the watchful eye of producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), it completely baffles me that this is the case. What’s so magical about Monroe is within her voice you can hear the ache of the lonesome she feels when singing. Her voice touches a part of the heart that allows you to feel so deeply attached to her music.This is something we haven’t heard since the days of Elvis Presley with ‘Always on my Mind’. Ashley Monroe is special, you must listen to Sparrow, it’s an album made up of the deepest parts of her soul and we’re so lucky she lets us in.

Shannon Hynes
@s_hynesmusic