As her career has progressed, singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe has been able to move farther and farther away from the standard Nashville plot. Some of that is due to the success that she has accrued through her association with her buddies Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley in the Pistol Annies and her other friend Jack White, with whom she performed as part of his house band for a few years. But as her songwriting has gained strength and her commercial prospects have gotten brighter, her albums have shed many of the recognizable names that would hopefully pique the interest of curious listeners.
The most notable name that is not on Sparrow, Monroe’s fourth LP, is Vince Gill, the country superstar who produced her previous two albums. Choosing instead to work with Dave Cobb, the man behind the boards for Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton’s recent triumphs was a brilliant move on her part. Their collaboration has resulted in one of the strongest and most grown up country albums to be released this decade.
Read: Paste’s interview with Ashley Monroe
Monroe dug deep on Sparrow after spending some time in therapy to unpack some of the pain of her past. Those shadows stretch over many of these songs, particularly the loss of her father to cancer as a teenager, which inspired the string-soaked opener “Orphan” and the wholehearted direct address “Daddy I Told You.” Through them, you can hear Monroe loosening her tight grip on the pain and letting acceptance rest gently in her palms. Cobb supports her by exercising restraint, letting the string section and some swirling organ lines carry some of the emotional weight while pushing the pangs of sorrow and shivers of memory in her voice to the fore.
Much of the rest of Sparrow plays like a country cousin to the metropolitan pop of Tracey Thorn’s recent solo venture Record. Both women have very adult concerns on their minds, from the joy/struggles of raising children to the agony of watching someone else suffer even with the knowledge that they’ll be better off in the long run. There’s still lust (Monroe’s “Hands On You” is steamy and perfect) and life’s fleeting moments of joy but the consequences of one’s actions are weighing on these songs.
The difference again is Cobb’s production. He and Monroe have been referencing the lush records of the late Glen Campbell and the ‘70s output of Elton John as inspirations for their work on Sparrow. And that proves to be the perfect bed for these songs to nestle into. The electric instrumentation is minimal, putting piano, acoustic guitar and some muted drums at the album’s core. Intimate songs like these needed such intimate music behind it. You’ve been invited in to the confessional and your job is to listen, learn and support.