“How do I make it alone?” Ashley Monroe contemplates in “Orphan,” the haunting opening track to her powerful new album Sparrow. It’s a question that seems almost symbolic for Monroe, who’s managed to forge a distinctive path in the landscape of country music by creating a niche sound that blends the timeless nature of vintage country with her signature ethereal style. Throughout her more than ten-year career, Monroe has been operating in a field all her own, one where her captivating sound and daring writing style has established her as one of the most fearless and compelling artists in the genre.
Sparrow only continues to demonstrate this. Monroe has always harbored the innate ability to take traditional country and make it feel new again, but Sparrow flies in a direction unique from her equally convincing past projects Like a Rose and The Blade. While Monroe has consistently bared her soul across her acclaimed songs, she calls upon a string orchestra to help tell her story on Sparrow in a way that feels like her most personal album to date.
Take “Keys to the Kingdom” for example, which resembles a humbling hymn as Monroe narrates her personal vision of what it would be like to enter the gates of heaven, surrounded by “everyone I’ve ever loved and then some,” hearing the voice of Elvis Presley while reuniting with her late father. She entwines this type of vibrant imagery throughout the project’s entirety, such as when she sings to her father directly on “Daddy I Told You,” writing it in such an intimate fashion that it feels like she’s letting us in on a private letter between the two, telling him through song that she fulfilled her promise to grow beyond their small town while vowing that she’s carrying his spirit beside her like a torch.
The sultry “Hands On You” and “Wild Love” have a way of taking you on a journey of passion, with their sensual lyrics reflecting her bold ability to tackle boundary-pushing topics. But the album’s most affecting track reveals itself in the form of “Orphan.” The introspective composition is soul-searching put to music, with its waning opening strings making you want to weep, while the reflective lyrics evoke even more emotion as she ponders the art of journeying through life on your own. “How does a sparrow / No more than us / When the mother is gone / And learns how to fly / With no direction / Its wings in the wind / How does a bird know more than us,” she contemplates, drawing you in with such harrowing notions that beg you to cling to every word.
Monroe uses Sparrow as a gateway into her soul, creating a movie in one’s head with her thought-provoking lyrics and poetic melodies that recall a dreamlike quality. No two songs are the same in production or subject matter, creating the kind of album that envelops you with every intriguing note and masterful lyric. “She finds love wherever she goes” isn’t true just of the Delta rose Monroe sings about in “Mother’s Daughter,” but the angelic singer herself, who has a way of moving you with her honest heart and exquisite sound, destined to find love no matter where she voyages musically, serving as evidence of the beauty that’s created when you venture a path all your own.