Album Review – Ashley Monroe’s “Rosegold”

photo: Alexa King

I wish Ashley Monroe all the best. She was an important part of the counter-insurgency against Bro-Country for over a decade, and of course her work with the Pistol Annies is superb. But I’ve got no use for this new record. My guess is neither do you if you’re a country music fan, though I’m sure it will scare up a few defenders and listeners. And it’s not just because it’s pop—which it most certainly is and in a purely exclusive way. It’s just that it’s rather pedestrian and anodyne even for the pop realm.

Records like this can be such a pill to discuss because they stoke the fires of the culture war. You say it’s not for you, and you get a face full of, “OH, SO YOU DON’T SUPPORT WOMEN IN MUSIC?!?” Well no, it’s not like that. It’s just… “OH, SO YOU HATE IT SOLELY BECAUSE IT’S NOT COUNTRY?!?” No, that’s not exactly right either. “PURIST!!!” Okay well, nevermind. No matter what you say, you’ll be couched as a closed-minded redneck American dumbass.

But you’re not the problem here. God forbid as a country fan you want to listen to country music. It’s hard to support women in country when so many continue to go pop, at least in the mainstream. Yeah I know, what do you expect them to do when radio won’t play them? But that’s not exactly what’s going on here. Besides, there’s women in country that have received much less support than Ashley Monroe that continue to stick it out. This is the album Monroe wanted to make. It’s just not very good, or maybe Ashley Monroe just isn’t very good at pop. After all, she’s a country artist.

The release of Ashley Monroe’s Rosegold was prefaced by many explanations and qualifiers, which is never a good sign. It’s not that the kernels of a good song can’t be mined from some of this material, especially the final songs “Til It Breaks,” “I Mean It,” and “The New Me,” which come after seven songs with single word titles, symbolizing the economy of words and story these early tracks employ since they’re more focused on aiding the synth-pop and rhythmic experience—a far cry from the songwriting-first approach Ashley Monroe was known for with previous titles.

As opposed to story, steel guitar, and heartbreak, you get attempts at creating sonic landscapes for ethereal and atmospheric moods, embellished by multi-layered and billowy presentations of Ashley’s voice, along with aggressive drum loops, and electronic sound beds set around lyrics that strain for catchiness, and melodies that struggle to set their hooks. Ashley says Kanye West was the primary influence for the album, but I’m not really hearing that either.

It’s not that pop is an entirely terrible enterprise, even when mixed with country. As much as traditionalists love to raise gripes whenever country gets too pop, some of that early Shania Twain stuff is better than they want to admit, even if only as a guilty pleasure. Carrie Underwood continues to help set the pace in the country mainstream, despite her pop sound. Morgan Wade just released an album that was more pop than some expected, but it’s still is receiving high praise because at least the songwriting holds up.

There also seems to be this strange idea that pastures are greener in pop for country artists. Perhaps if you’re real good at it, or been pop the whole time that’s the case (see: Taylor Swift). But for many artists native to country, you just end up just becoming a smaller fish in a bigger sea. Ask The Band Perry. Remember that pop album Little Big Town released produced by Pharrell? Yeah, I don’t either. And as pop, it was probably pretty good.

This album has also once again brought up the false notion that you can’t be creative in country—that you must broaden your sonic palette and expand your horizons beyond the restrictive nature of the genre if you truly want to express yourself. Along with this being an insult to all the country artists out there, it’s also just incorrect. Country isn’t as limiting as the media outside of the genre loves to portray, and pop is often just as derivative, formulaic, and unimaginative as much as mainstream country, if not more.

Monroe has been saying that she’s very guarded of her happiness these days, and doesn’t want to make sad songs. If that’s the case, we shouldn’t want her to make sad songs either, though country is not required to be sad. Ashley Monroe can make whatever songs and music she wants to, and she’s earned the respect and latitude to do that. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

I want to like Ashley Monroe’s new album, and new direction. I just don’t. The Pistol Annies are making noise like they may have something new up their sleeve, so I’ll remain excited for that. But if it’s take it or leave it for Rosegold, I’ll leave it. I don’t even really know how to judge this record as opposed to “dislike” simply due to it being such a dedicated creature of the pop realm, which somewhat disqualifies this set of ears as being expert, while there’s not a lot of texture to this album to discuss. Everything just sort of blends together. I know good pop when I hear it though, and I don’t hear much of it here.

Again, I wish all the best to Ashley Monroe. Because I like Ashley Monroe’s country music, and we need women like her. But instead, she’s just the latest to go pop, or to make a pop record. Another one bites the dust I guess.

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