Ashley Monroe only sang lead on one song on the Pistol Annies' Hell on Heels, but that song, “Beige,” was perhaps the most nuanced, complex cut on a heady, smart album that was all about toying with artistic license. On her second solo album, Like a Rose, Monroe takes the same narrative point of view that made “Beige” such a potent and devastating song and expands on it with a clear-eyed sense of purpose that recalls the finest efforts of her fellow Pistol Annie, Miranda Lambert. The album emerges as a fascinating character sketch, as Monroe uses carefully chosen first-person details and clever turns of phrase to flesh out the persona of a young woman who's been damaged by her past, but who can still find humor and even joy in the present.
Monroe establishes this distinct persona from the first few lines of the extraordinary title track. Her delivery of the line, “I was only 13 when daddy died,” conveys a pain that's still raw, but she doesn't let that pain define her, singing, “I'm still bouncing back/Heaven only knows/How I came out like a rose.” Monroe references her father's death a second time (on the raucous “Monroe Suede,” a co-write with Vince Gill), and in neither instance does she do so in a way that's strictly autobiographical. Instead, she incorporates this candid personal detail into songs that aren't explicitly about her, bringing authentic emotions and experiences into compelling narratives that showcase a real mastery of voice.
Monroe knows that there's a story behind every scar, and Like a Rose proves her to be a skilled, versatile storyteller. The similes she uses to describe herself on “Used” may not be flattering, but the images are evocative (“Like a book I've read so many times front to back/It starts to split in two”) and are on-point with the album's broader themes. Both the on-the-verge cycle of “Monroe Suede” and the ribald “Weed Instead of Roses” are tongue-in-cheek celebrations of vice and hard living, and both are effective because Monroe doesn't condescend to her chosen subjects by reducing them to the kind of empty “badass” posturing that makes up so much of what gets played on country radio. She gives careful consideration to the consequences of her decisions on “The Morning After” and “You Got Me,” and she even brings some gallows humor to “Two Weeks Late,” perhaps the most sarcastic song ever written about an unplanned pregnancy.
The album's sole misstep, both in terms of thematic coherence and songwriting quality, is “You Ain't Dolly (And You Ain't Porter),” a duet with a woefully overmatched Blake Shelton. While the song's concept, which casts Monroe as a “queen of karaoke night” and Shelton as the cowboy who catches her eye, could have fit with the remainder of the album, the execution is simply too poor and the singers have too little chemistry for the track to work as anything more than a novelty. With references to The Voice and 50 Shades of Grey awkwardly shoe-horned into its lyrics, “You Ain't Dolly” is the only song on Like a Rose that resorts to cheap, easy signifiers.
For the rest of its admittedly brief running time, Like a Rose is a keenly observed and rewarding album that's a standout in what, only a few months in, has already been an uncommonly strong year for country music. Whether or not her elevated profile with the Pistol Annies will help her to earn a commercial breakthrough, Like a Rose firmly establishes Monroe as a singular artist who deserves to be known for more than just her “Hippie Annie” part-time gig.