Ashley Monroe – Sparrow Album Review: Monroe muses love, life and death on her fourth studio record

Sparrow is Monroe’s fourth studio solo album and her follow up to the Grammy nominated The Blade. On this album Monroe said she was going to start listening to herself again and sing through the pain. This album deals with grief, relationships of many forms and love. It is vulnerable, open and a heart breaking insight into pain. Monroe processes many complex emotions and ties them up with a big, sweeping orchestral bow. This isn’t a cliché Country album of the 21st century but it celebrates much of what the genre is known for.

You’d be forgiven, on the listening to the first few chords of Sparrow for asking yourself “is this really a country record?” as the opening track Orphan ignites. The deep, emotive, orchestral notes set the tone for this song as Monroe’s gentle voice echoes over the soft music. The opening song is intentionally tragic and heart breaking and lends itself to the emotional exploration that an artist such as Monroe’s vocals are made for. Monroe has explained how this album explores pain and she delves straight in with the opening track. ‘How does an orphan find its way home? Reach out with no hand to hold, How do I make it alone?’

Track two is Hard on a Heart which immediately kicks the tempo up to fast and dramatic. In contrast, the chorus feels a strong connection to Orphan with sweeping strings and softer vocals from Monroe. This song feels almost as though Monroe is pleading and begging, knowing she could do better and be kinder but that she needs them to love her anyway. This song is sympathetic and understanding, whilst being stubborn and strong.

Hands on You wouldn’t have been out of place on Monroe’s last album The Blade, as it beautifully demonstrates Monroe’s sultry and captivating lyrics and vocals. For me, as a huge fan of The Blade, this song is a real standout and it shows another side to Monroe on this record. It makes you feel as though you should be in a dark, smoky bar listening to this majestic woman singing on stage, while you try to stop yourself getting into any trouble.

Following up, the next track musically feels slightly more lighthearted with its higher tones. Mother’s Daughter explores Monroe’s relationship with her own mother and how it reflects on her, even if she doesn’t want to admit it. It’s a song, which lyrically, will sit with many woman as they too grow and see their mother in themselves. The upbeat music masks the damming and tragic lyrics. ‘She won’t admit it, but when the tough gets harder, She’s her mother’s daughter, She’s gonna let you down.’

Track five is Rita. This follows on with the higher tones but fits it in beautifully with cinematic strings. This song is solid, lyrically it doesn’t take you on the same journey as other tracks on the album but it does allow the music to flourish and drive the listeners’ emotions. ‘I don’t what it’s like to live in your world, don’t know what it means to you, but I want to, don’t know what it’s like to wrestle your ghosts.’ It will leave you wanting to know more and have answers to Monroe’s questions.

Wild Love has a sultry, retro feel to the music. This song is an all-rounder, lyrically it doesn’t explore the same dark places as on many of the other tracks but it is majestic and beautiful in its on way. It will leave you begging for your very own ‘Wild Love’. ‘Call me a stranger, Pull my hair and call my name, Take me home and make feel alive again’

Next up, This Heaven takes you back into the pain which was explored earlier in the album. The gospel, echoey feel to this song really captures the heavenly feel to the lyrical content. It’s light, soft, and really allows Monroe’s vocals to stay as the centre piece and showcase the emotional depth her range possesses.

The eighth song is I’m Trying Too. This is a true heartbreak song. If you’ve ever loved someone who didn’t love you back, no matter how hard you tried not to love them, then Monroe elegantly sums up that emotion. This song is desperate and heart breaking and is reminiscent of classic Country heartbreak songs. This song has a soft, vulnerable nature to it, which brings you into the fold of Monroe’s heartbreak. ‘What do you need to know before you know? Trying to read your mind is like driving when you’re blind’

She Wakes Me Up shows a completely new side to Sparrow. New mother Monroe explores the nurturing effect that children have on their parents. The music is immediately more upbeat, with a strong, fast pace tempo taking the listener on a different journey. ‘She never tells me when I’m doing something wrong, She just pulls me gently, she leads me home’ I like this side to Monroe; this song is joyous but honest and realistic. It shows a happier side to the parent/child relationship explored on this album, but focuses on the answers to the doubts of ability felt by parents.

The tenth song Paying Attention immediately slows the tempo down again. It’s a reflective song, with Monroe dealing with her emotions head on in a song which lets the music sing almost louder than the lyrics. It has a haunting, regretful feel to it as Monroe looks back on her life to help guide her future.

The penultimate track is Daddy I Told You. This album explores many areas of pain, but this track focuses on the pain of losing a parent. But this track doesn’t feel as painful as the rest of the lyrics on the album, because it instead explores her relationship with her late father in terms of her keeping all her teenage promises to him. Monroe reflects on how things are changing and moving to a more positive place, whilst never forgetting her father and his legacy. It’s a beautiful song which is a wonderful tribute. ‘Daddy I told you I was gonna fly, I’d get out of that town alive, Don’t worry, I kept your name and your picture in a frame.’

Keys to the Kingdom feels like the perfect place the end this album. This song picks up the religious feel of ‘This Heaven’ as Monroe is handed the keys to heaven and sees all those she has lost both personally and musically. This song sums up many of the themes presented in the album and musically reflects the different tones heard throughout. ‘I was handed keys to the kingdom, I was given a haunted guitar, And I heard it sing, Every song it ever wrote and them some’

Track Listing

1. Orphan
2. Hard on a Heart
3. Hands on You
4. Mother’s Daughter
5. Rita
6. Wild Love
7. This Heaven
8. I’m Trying Too
9. She Wakes Me Up
10. Paying Attention
11. Daddy I Told You
12. Keys to the Kingdom

Overall

It feels retro and classic, with some risky orchestral moments. It’s a solid yet brave album; paying homage to classic Country whilst giving it a modern twist. Monroe chose to work with producer Dave Cobb on this album for a different Nashville sound which is punctuated with big orchestral pieces. Sparrow gives the Country music fan an entirely new take on the genre and it feels worlds apart from songs about whiskey, tanned legs, and neon lights. This album celebrates the beautiful honesty Country music is so well known for and feels like a fresh breath of air. It’s haunting and heart breaking but little moments of joy can be found in the middle. On a personal note, I miss more of the sultry notes from previous work from Monroe but I have to highly commend her openness and honesty. She’s brave taking such a new look at Country whilst playing homage to classic artists who came before. If you’re not too keen on where mainstream Country music looks like its heading, then this is definitely the album that will restore hope for you.

Recommended Tracks

Hands on You, Mother’s Daughter, She Wakes Me Up, Daddy I Told You

Six Shooter Rating

7.5 out of 10

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