It doesn’t matter when or how you jump on the Ashley Monroe bandwagon, but you need to make that leap. Monroe has been dutifully chipping away at the sexist monolith that is Nashville’s record label industry for years now to no avail, even though she sounds like the second coming of Alison Krauss and write songs that evoke Patsy, Loretta, and Dolly. Luckily, in 2011 a secret passageway opened up for both her and Angaleena Presley in the form of Miranda Lambert-led girl-group Pistol Annies, and Monroe released her proper solo debut Like A Rose shortly afterward in 2013. Two years later, she’s followed up that quirky and sweet record with one that explores darkness, grief, and heartache. Doesn’t it seem like a lot of brilliant women got their hearts broken in the last year? File The Blade next to The Pinkprint and Vulnicura as another record that chronicles a feminine perspective on the spectacularly crippling power of romantic loss.
But The Blade does much more than that, and it comes mighty close to being the best country album of the year. “It was the Bible belt that whipped me when I broke the fifth command,” Monroe sings through gritted teeth on the remarkably complex “Dixie,” a song that manages to eviscerate the South while invoking every bit of the swampy soul that region produced. Paradoxically, it’s an indictment cloaked in all the best parts of Southern music, and further proof of the wit lurking behind Monroe’s gorgeous blonde curls. “Winning Streak,” too, cleverly plays with language, doubling down on bad luck with a song that laughs off life’s high stakes. Yet to characterize this record as solely a breakup album would be to overlook its incisive take on the South’s pervasive morality politics. “If the devil don’t want me, where the hell do I go? / If there ain’t enough whiskey / to cure the fire in my soul,” she wonders on “If The Devil Don’t Want Me,” and a church pew doesn’t seem like the likely answer to this kind of rock-bottom existentialism. Which is not to say that the album’s strongest moments aren’t these bitter anthems of pain — they undoubtedly are. “I Buried Your Love Alive,” is the grittiest, most gothic song on the record, and accordingly, the most powerful. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more cutting description of an ex’s easy, careless dismissal than title track “The Blade.” Some of these songs sting like salt in the wound; they clarify agony into jagged country songs. These will never make the radio, but they’ll find their place in the canon anyway.
Monroe stays sweet and lilting on other tracks like “Weight Of Load” and “On To Something Good,” or soothes like calm after a storm on “From Time To Time.” Even with all the variations in topic and tone, Monroe’s voice weaves every thread, every emotion into one cohesive whole. Some country artists find one sound that works for them and stay stuck in that predictable rut, but not Monroe. Razor sharp, she reflects a woman struggling with her roots, struggling with her heart, and desperate to move forward even if she can’t help glancing back. The Blade is an album that captures everything contained in that backward glance. Listen below.
The Blade is out 7/24 via Warner Bros. Pre-order it here.