From her earliest singles in the mid-2000s, Ashley Monroe bent country music to her will. Whether she was singing about grief over her father’s death, the complicated joy of motherhood, or just a simple crush, she took old, familiar sounds and gussied them up to express something particular and deeply personal. As a result, her music often feels as meaningful and as confessional as her lyrics. Her songs about weed and sex sound all the more radical for being packaged in a style more commonly associated—rightly or wrongly—with conservatism. There’s poignancy in hearing her address rocky relationships with her parents through songs steeped in the classic twang they impressed on her as a child. Her intimate connection to the genre has made her one of the most compelling—not to mention one of the most sneakily subversive—artists in Nashville, albeit not among the most popular: She’s an outlaw of sorts, but not the easily marketable kind.
From the lush countrypolitan sound of The Blade to the gentle twang of the Dave Cobb-produced Sparrow, Monroe’s records each have a distinctive palette, suggesting an artist constantly rethinking her relationship to country music. Her latest, Rosegold, is more blatant and calculated in its sound, and it is steadfastly not a country album—it’s more Lana Del Rey than Dolly Parton. Working with a familiar crew of songwriters and producers, Monroe borrows from pop and hip-hop, flattens out the twang and distorts her vocals, and drenches everything in twilit colors meant to accentuate the songs’ melancholy.
But once you get past the gutsiness of an artist willing to jettison her comfort zone, what you’re left with is muddled and unsatisfying. Many of these songs are rooted in country songwriting and harmonizing, in particular “Silk” and “The New Me,” but her efforts to move away from these familiar elements create a tension that more often than not emphasizes the songs’ shortcomings. Rosegold asks you to calculate its precarious successes against its noble failures. There are plenty of the former, because Monroe knows how to put a song together: She piles the strings high on “Gold,” so that they tower over her voice—a monument to the way a certain someone makes her feel. “See” marches to a slow-moving chorus that recalls the National’s “Pink Rabbits,” highlighting the delicate breaks in her voice and the way she can twist a syllable to catch the light. But there are just as many moments when Monroe overreaches, such as the awkwardly insinuated reggae rhythm on “Groove” or the loudly ticking drums that open “I Mean It.”
Especially for an artist so steeped in country music—a genre that prizes tradition more than practices it—this kind of musical boldness can be compelling even when the stunts don’t land. What ultimately sinks Rosegold is the songwriting, which is where Monroe typically excels. This might be her least distinguished set of songs to date, relying too heavily on cliché (“I’m flying without even trying”) and vague, pat sentiment (“Sometimes it doesn’t come together ’til it breaks”). Even a title like “I Mean It” seems to nod to the suspicion that there’s less of her in these songs than we’ve come to expect. By the time she gives herself a pep talk at the end of “The New Me,” it’s clear that she’s serving these arrangements more than they serve her.
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