Genre: Pop, Country
Favorite Tracks: “Drive,” “Groove,” “The New Me”
Few albums are more important to me than 2013’s LIKE A ROSE by Ashley Monroe—one of the first country albums I ever understood, and one I knew instantly that I loved. It was the perfect blend of hilarious and heartbreaking, old classic country cliches with modern sensibilities that paired with Monroe’s beautiful, moving vocals and delicate yet raucous instrumentation. Perhaps it only got so much acclaim because its neapolitan stylings were refreshing during Nashville’s doofiest era of production, from post-grunge’s runoff to a one-sided crush on hip hop, but no; “Used” and “Weed Instead of Roses” remain some of the best songs of the decade across any genre, the former a devastating rebuttal to the culture of purity, the latter a hilarious-but-romantic track about remaining in love deep into a relationship with the best delivered line in the history of bridges.
To date, I’ve sadly not been floored by her subsequent material. 2015’s THE BLADE had some great tunes with “I Buried Your Love Alive” and “Has Anybody Ever Told You,” but it lost any sense of humor as Monroe couldn’t deliver any of the anger typical of this sort of breakup album, leading to an oddly dissonant record. 2018’s SPARROW was too slick and polished for its own good; Monroe never had the rock edge or grit of Miranda Lambert or Ashley McBryde, but the strings here were overbearing and the overall production was oversaturated to the point of flavorlessness.
With its dreamy quality, SPARROW was still definitely a country album, but the same is rarely true of her latest, ROSEGOLD. While too many of the tracks here may lack any melody and the writing largely reaches rock bottom, it’s still somehow not as bad as I feared it to be, improving somewhat on its predecessor’s palette. Even by the standards set by the new wave of dreamy country and Americana, most recently Valerie June’s THE MOON AND STARS: PRESCRIPTION FOR DREAMERS, ROSEGOLD is still incredibly synthetic and lacking in any classic twang or rollick. In an interview with Vulture, Monroe cited Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and Beck as her biggest influences, yet she ended up with something that more resembles the heavily-multi tracked, cooing trap-R&B of Ariana Grande, or maybe the gauzy acoustic pop of Dido with a little more color.
To be clear, none of this has to be a bad thing, and there are few moments where this really works. Monroe’s most successful song from SPARROW, “Hands on You,” tried for a raw, carnal sensuality, and ROSEGOLD hits this vibe better. “Drive” goes for a really obvious metaphor between sex and driving, yet the fluttering keys, hazy hook, and deeper guitar tone in the chorus sell the hedonistic pleasure. The chugging violins on “Groove” are a little too choppy, but her multi-tracking and the gorgeous string melody in the bridge do a lot of work to sell a basic, lovestruck sentiment. And aside from how out-of-breath she sounds on “Flying,” Monroe’s performance across ROSEGOLD remains alluring and pretty, which is surprising given that she apparently recorded all of them the day she wrote each song.
Sadly, the guitars on “Drive” are an exception on a record that desperately needs some melodic punch or foundation. The trap grooves on “I Mean It” and fake snaps on “Gold” are better mixed than a lot of other country music trying to incorporate drum machines, and the pianos and atmospherics sound rather pretty. However, there’s nothing to hook on to as it falls into an unformed blob—if you’re going to go pop, you’ve to have hooks and refinement, and little on ROSEGOLD stands out. When the album does coalesce with some distinct tunes, the intended result is unclear. The murky vocal sample and industrial grinding on “Siren” works well in the dank mix, but the mood is impossible to figure out with a very possessive bridge and probably the most lyrically interesting pre-chorus on the record never coming through with the understanding that the titular mythological figure lured men to their death.
Monroe’s lyrics have been on the decline for a while, but they reach a low point here. When Kacey Musgraves made her most commercial and electronic record to date with GOLDEN HOUR, she still packed in interesting lyrical details on “Slow Burn” and an introspective, complex portrait of a relationship slowly burning out on “Space Cowboy.” ROSEGOLD, by comparison, is a lot of basic love songs with nothing interesting beyond Monroe trying her hardest to imbue them with meaning by performing her heart out. Compare these songs to the numerous, evocative similes of “Used” the humor of “Weed Instead of Roses,” and even the ode to her father on “Daddy I Told You,” and the blandness of the writing here shines through to an embarrassing degree.
The only writing that comes close to working on its own is the closer, “The New Me,” which works similarly to Of Monsters and Men’s “Soothsayer” in finding Monroe urging her partner to understand that she’s changed and loves themselves more now than before. Both work as a meta-comment, asking the fans to go into their new sound with an open mind because the artist behind the track enjoys making it more than the previous material. Sadly, in both cases, it’s hard to respect that wish when the risks of the album are not matched by the compositions and lyrics you know they are capable of.