Back in 2013 I came across a lot of great new music, specifically a lot of great country music. The most notable artists I came across were Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, The Mavericks and Ashley Monroe. The most under the radar artist of the group was undoubtedly Monroe. To this point she was most well-known for being one-third of the Pistol Annies. That year she released her debut solo album Like A Rose and captured the attention of traditional country music critics and fans everywhere. It was certainly a favorite listen of mine’s from that year, so I was definitely anticipating her sophomore album. This time around her label Warner Brothers Nashville has been a lot more involved and it shows, something I’ll elaborate on later in the review. One good sign to see for this album coming in was Vince Gill and Justin Niebank producing it, as both produced Monroe’s first album. So this gave me high hopes, despite the lackluster lead single. So does The Blade live up to expectations? Well in some ways it does and others it does not.
Speaking of the aforementioned lackluster single, “On To Something Good” starts the album off, which I reviewed when it was first released. And my thoughts really haven’t changed on it. From my original review: “On To Something Good” is a song about….I’m not sure. It’s so bland and uninteresting that I find it hard to listen to. It doesn’t hold my attention and is the equivalent of elevator music. It’s just something to fill the void. So for as what the song is about, you can choose. I know I don’t feel like figuring it out because this song is just so boring and we all have better music we could be listening to.
The sound of drums plays in “I Buried Your Love Alive,” a southern gothic inspired song from the theme to the instrumentation. The song has this vibe hanging over it throughout it. It’s a heartbreak song where the woman can’t get over her lost love and does everything she can to get rid of the memory. While the theme and southern gothic inspiration is good, I have a couple of problems with this song. First it’s overproduced, as the instrumentation is too busy and the occasional echoing of Monroe’s voice is annoying. Another problem with this song is Monroe doesn’t show enough emotion to make the song connect. Not to mention I feel she didn’t go deep enough lyrically. This is a decent song that could have been great. There are some similar problems on the next song, “Bombshell.” The premise of the song is intriguing, as it’s about a woman waiting and figuring out the perfect time to drop a bombshell on her boyfriend. That bombshell is she no longer loves him. The song kept building and building to this moment and when it came I felt underwhelmed. I was expecting an explosion of emotion, but didn’t get it. The storytelling was here, but not the emotion.
Monroe relies on Kacey Musgraves’ like platitudes on “Weight of The Load.” It’s a song about helping a significant other shoulder the weight of the load in a loving relationship. It’s a little too bland and polished for my tastes. What’s even more disappointing is that Monroe and Vince Gill wrote this song. I expect more when these two write a song. Also once again where is the emotional connection? This is starting to become a running theme on this album. The album’s title track follows this and finally we get a glimpse of the Ashley Monroe I enjoyed on her debut album Like A Rose. It’s a heartbreak song where the man has left his woman and the hook of the song describes the breakup perfectly. The end of the relationship is described as the swinging of a blade. As Monroe sings from the female perspective, “You got it by the handle and I caught it by the blade.” This creates the perfect imagery in the listeners’ head and credit to the songwriters Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin.
The piano and acoustic guitar driven “Winning Streak” is a fast-paced song about being stuck in a losing game. As Monroe sings, “If losing’s game I’m on a winning streak.” This is just a fun and simple country song. It should be noted that Monroe wrote this song with Jessi Alexander (co-writer of the Lee Brice song “I Drive Your Truck”) and Chris Stapleton and is one of two songs this trio wrote on the album. “From Time To Time” reminds me of something you would hear on 90s country radio. I want to say it’s the production that makes me think this, as I immediately got this vibe when I heard the song. It’s very easy to listen to upon the surface, but when you listen closer I’m just not sure what this song is going for. It’s vague and not sure what it wants to be. Monroe is once again joined by two notable songwriters on a song, this time Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann. You know them as Striking Matches. This trio also writes two songs together on The Blade.
Monroe goes back to the platitudes on “If Love Was Fair.” This is your run of the mill love song. Part of the chorus is from 1 Corinthians 13:4. You know the one bible verse that is repeated at every single wedding? I just don’t understand this light and breezy approach that a lot of the songs on this album take. “Has Anybody Ever Told You” though drops this approach and is one of the most serious songs on the album. It’s a love song with some actual punch behind it and something that will create emotion in the listener. Monroe’s vocals are allowed to shine and the instrumentation is brilliant between the piano and pedal steel guitar. This is my favorite song on the album. The second co-write of the album between Monroe and Striking Matches, “Dixie,” is next. Monroe sings about being sick of Dixieland and wanting to get the hell out of there, as her experiences there have driven her away. It’s an intriguing song and kind of bold, as you don’t hear many songs about being sick of the south, especially from mainstream country artists. Just for this alone I’m kind of impressed with the song.
“If The Devil Don’t Want Me” is the second Monroe-Alexander-Stapleton co-written song of the album. Monroe wonders throughout this song of where she’ll be going if the devil doesn’t want her and she can’t find the light. This is very much a traditional country song, from the lyrics to the sound. It’s right in Monroe’s wheelhouse and another highlight of the album. It’s a real big shocker that both Stapleton co-writes are good, huh? The traditionally arranged “Mayflowers” is another song that proves Monroe needs to stick with this sound and stay away from the pop country sound towards the beginning of the album. This is a sweet love song where the woman vows to bring the love back to their relationship and uses the metaphor of “April showers bring May flowers” to convey the point. It’s a song you have to hear for yourself to truly appreciate. The 13-song album comes to a conclusion with “I’m Good At Leavin’,” a song with plenty of fiddle and steel guitar (also co-written with Alexander and Miranda Lambert). Monroe sings about how she’s good at leaving and basically she’s a rambling woman who can’t stay in a relationship for too long. I’ve always wondered why female country artists never take on the rambling man theme that male artists always use and kudos to Monroe for doing it. It’s another solid song from the Pistol Annies singer.
Ashley Monroe’s The Blade is an up and down listen throughout. The album starts out with a lot of pop country songs that are lightweight all-around and make me wonder what happened to Monroe. Luckily, the second half is more in line with what we heard on her debut album and that’s a traditional country arrangement. While there were plenty of songs that caught my attention in a good way, this is a clear step down from Like A Rose. To me what ultimately sunk this album down was there were too many cooks in the kitchen on this album. Warner Nashville stuck their fingers in this album, whereas they let Monroe do her own thing before. I’m pretty sure they were the ones pushing for more pop country, as they’ve pushed her for radio play this time around and didn’t with Like A Rose. Not to mention this album is too long at 13 songs. I would’ve cut four songs from this album (“On To Something Good,” “Weight of the Load,” “From Time To Time” and “If Love Was Fair”) and then added a duet with Vince Gill as the 10th song. Seriously, he’s right there producing and you don’t have a duet with him? This is a missed opportunity. Really that sums up this entire album: it was a missed opportunity. The Blade is just good, but it could have been so much more.