Ashe Seems Far Too Self-Assured To Care Whether You Think She’s Corny
Ashe occupies a unique space between indie and Disney. Two years after scoring a viral hit with the divorce ballad “Moral Of The Story,” the 28-year-old San Jose native born Ashlyn Rae Willson released her debut album Ashlyn last week. It’s too fascinating to be slagged off as basic, but there’s a down-the-middle quality to its ambition. On one hand, Ashe’s songs sound like they could thrive on easy listening radio and in public spaces like grocery stores, and they appeal directly to listeners’ most sentimental impulses. On the other hand, she’s a wonderfully engaging writer with a flair for the dramatic who has configured her influences into a compelling debut album.
Released on Valentine’s Day 2019, “Moral Of The Story” introduced both Ashe’s backstory and her aesthetic. She wrote the song after filing for divorce from the man she married at age 23, tracing a path through her missteps as a way to process her feelings. Along the way there are telling flashbacks (“Remember how we painted our house/ Just like my grandparents did/ So romantic, but we fought the whole time/ Should’ve seen the signs”) as well as conversational snippets that feel like dialogue from a romantic comedy (“Talking with my lawyer, she said, “Where’d you find this guy?’/ I said, ‘Young people fall in love with the wrong people sometimes'”). It all keeps building back to a chorus designed to soothe brokenhearted people as they piece together the wreckage of their personal lives: “Some mistakes get made, that’s alright, that’s okay/ You can think that you’re in love when you’re really just in pain.” And given that the video has been viewed 49 million times on YouTube, it seems safe to say heartbroken people have found it.
“Moral Of The Story” pulls off the neat trick of sounding both intimate and epic. There’s a distinctly millennial chattiness to Ashe’s lyrics and vocal performance. Her specific mix of whimsy and devastation gives off the vibe of a friend walking you through her heartbreak over coffee or wine, like an emotionally weightier spin on Taylor Swift’s exasperated storytelling on “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” Ashe tweaks and mirrors lyrical motifs as she goes, showing off a savvy understanding of narrative songwriting. Musically, it builds from plaintive piano balladry to a grandly swelling finale that wouldn’t sound out of place in The Greatest Showman or an old-timey cabaret production. She flutters her voice with theater-kid pizzaz on the bridge while declaring that Tennyson’s old quote about loving and losing “could be a load of shit.” Finneas contributed additional production to the song, and his sister Billie Eilish supposedly made an uncredited lyrical contribution, but it’s hard to come away from “Moral Of The Story” hearing anything but Ashe’s own unmistakable perspective.
Ashlyn smartly expands on this template. Ashe is a Berklee graduate, and her album is steeped in ornate arrangements and classic sounds. There aren’t many obvious parallels to her sound on Ashe’s record label Mom+Pop, an independent company whose current roster includes the likes of Courtney Barnett, Beach Bunny, and Sleater-Kinney. In terms of semi-contemporary points of comparison, the album shows flashes of the emo-goes-Broadway grandiosity of fun.’s Some Nights as well as Natalie Prass’ ’70s singer-songwriter soft-pop revivalism. There are also traces of Kacey Musgraves in fairytale mode and Lana Del Rey at her least self-serious. Her closest resemblance within the modern pop pantheon is probably Eilish’s jazzy ballad mode, but Ashe is rarely so subdued. Even when she’s drowning in sadness, her music has a certain Pinterest quality about it, a sense that her plight is ready to be adapted into a self-consciously quirky musical sitcom.
The tracklist is bookended by duets. It ends with a second version of centerpiece “Moral Of The Story” featuring One Direction alum Niall Horan, a performer so whitebread that he makes Ashe feel like Ashnikko by comparison. It begins with another divorce ballad called “Till Forever Falls Apart,” which welcomes back Finneas in artist mode. That one is so sweeping and over-the-top that some listeners will probably recoil at its corniness, especially when paired with a music video that feels like bad community theater. What it does have going for it is some expertly deployed weeping country guitar and a bombastic string section that pushes Ashe and Finneas to really lean into the corniness of it all. But Ashe doesn’t really need to bounce her persona off of someone else, and on an album that largely deals with her journey into independence, she’s better off hogging the frame.
Every once in a while Ashlyn turns its attention to something besides Ashe’s divorce. On the lighter end of the spectrum, there’s an ode to teenage romance called “Taylor” that naturally sounds like Big Star’s “Thirteen.” On the heavier end, “Ryne’s Song” pays tribute to her brother, who died last year, even sampling a voicemail she wishes she’d replied to before it was too late. For the most part, though, the album deals with Ashe’s divorce, presenting snapshots from the process of bouncing back. “Woke up too early, almost put salt in your coffee,” she begins on the Beatles-y “I’m Fine.” On the twee chamber-pop jaunt “Without You,” she proclaims, “I can be me without you/ I don’t feel lost without you” before insisting, “I can be funny and I can be interesting/ People can like me, it shouldn’t be threatening.” One of the more modern-sounding tracks, “Not Mad Anymore,” finds her in a stage of acceptance: “I’m not mad anymore about the madness/ We didn’t have anymore of the magic.”
Ashe worked closely on her album with executive producer Leroy “Big Taste” Clampitt (yes, that’s his real name), who has maintained similar long-term arrangements with pop strivers like Phoebe Ryan and Madison Beer. Ashlyn seems like it could be a bigger deal than anything those artists have ever released. Ashe’s talent is significant, and it manifests in ostentatious ways that I imagine will be extremely polarizing, which is always good for business. At times the album clashes with my own notions of good taste, but elsewhere I find myself swept up in its pirouetting melodies and tasteful arrangements. On balance, I’m more inclined to endorse Ashe for her obvious skill as a songwriter than to dismiss her for being a little cloying sometimes. If she ends up leaning into the worst aspects of her sound someday and I end up regretting that I ever said anything nice about her? Some mistakes get made, that’s alright, that’s okay.
After being blocked by Tyler, The Creator two years ago, DJ Khaled is back atop the Billboard 200 for the third time with Khaled Khaled. According to Billboard, the album put up 93,000 equivalent album units, including 14,000 in actual sales. He previously hit #1 with 2016’s Major Key and 2017’s Grateful. From #2 to #9 are Moneybagg Yo, Morgan Wallen, Justin Bieber, Young Thug and his YSL Records crew, Rod Wave, Dua Lipa, Pop Smoke, and the Weeknd. And Thomas Rhett rounds out the top 10 with a #10 debut for Country Again (Side A).
Over on the Hot 100, the Weeknd and Ariana Grande’s “Save Your Tears” remains #1 for a second straight week. It’s followed by two more former chart-toppers, Silk Sonic’s “Leave The Door Open” at #2 and the Justin Bieber/Giveon/Daniel Caesar team-up “Peaches” at #3. Powered by TikTok virality, Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s longstanding hit “Levitating” reaches a new #4 peak this week and supposedly has a chance to become Dula Peep’s first #1 hit next week. Also reaching a new plateau is Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” at #5.
After Polo G’s “Rapstar” at #6, Masked Wolf’s “Astronaut In The Ocean” at #7, and Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” at #8 comes a #9 debut for Billie Eilish’s “Your Power.” According to Billboard it’s Eilish’s fifth top-10 hit and the third from her upcoming album Happier Than Ever. Rounding out the top 10 is the Kid Laroi’s new version of “Without You” featuring Miley Cyrus. It’s Laroi’s second top-10 hit and first as a lead artist following his turn on Juice WRLD and Marshmello’s “Hate The Other Side,” which also peaked at #10. It’s the tenth top-10 hit for Cyrus, counting one under her old Hannah Montana alias.
Coldplay – “Higher Power”
Coldplay told Max Martin to give them that Abel Tesfaye, but make it happy. And friends, Max went in. “Higher Power” is the effervescent ’80s-nostalgic anthem I did not know I needed.
Gracie Abrams – “Mess It Up”
Olivia Rodrigo’s fave is back with some brisk, breathy Bridgers-core and a charming music video.
Conan Gray – “Astronomy”
A lot to unpack here. “Astronomy” is a little bit Nick Drake, a little bit Jeff Buckley, a little bit bedroom-pop, and a little bit Shawn Mendes among many other glimpses of the past and present. It would be fair to shrug this off as schlock, but I feel like this Conan Gray kid is on to something.
J Balvin – “7 De Mayo”
Always interesting to hear Balvin venture outside of his reggaeton comfort zone, in this case over Drake-esque dramatic twinkling by Tainy. Happy 35th birthday, José!
OneRepublic – “Run”
Can pop music please not enter a new whistling phase?
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Jennifer Lopez is “hanging out” with ex Ben Affleck after her recent split from Alex Rodriguez. [Page Six]
- The real life encounter between Selena and a young Beyoncé was reenacted in Netflix’s Selena: The Series. [Twitter]
- Here are photos of Harry Styles in costume on the set of My Policeman. [Twitter]
- Megan Thee Stallion announced a Snapchat reality series about pets. [Twitter]
- Saweetie promoted her new single by busking “for donations” in LA. [TMZ]
- Olivia Munn stars in Imagine Dragons’ new “Cutthroat” video. [YouTube]
- Justin Bieber announced rescheduled 2022 dates for his Justice World Tour. [Justin Bieber]
- Julia Michaels did “Little Did I Know” on Ellen. [Ellen]
- Anitta did “Girl From Rio” on Kimmel. [YouTube]
- Masked Wolf released a remix of his hit “Astronaut In The Ocean” featuring G-Eazy and DDG. [Masked Wolf]
- Taylor Swift was referenced in the AP US government and politics exam. [CNN]