Family matters, and family as a source of conflicting emotions, loom large over Ashley Monroe's Sparrow. The singer-songwriter's fourth album reckons with tangled genealogies and troubled pasts; throughout, Monroe's characters grieve their losses, count their scars, and try to heal. Working with producer Dave Cobb, Monroe has created a sonic palette to help translate those vivid feelings into expressive, visceral music. While Cobb is best known for the analog austerity he's brought to albums by Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, he and Monroe sought inspiration in the syrupy strings of classic “countrypolitan” on Sparrow.
Yet while Monroe and Cobb draw inspiration from the lush, orchestral country of the 1960s, Sparrow is no throwback. Songs like “Rita” use cinematic orchestrations to evoke the dusty, widescreen pop of Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John, but the lush melancholy of “Orphan” resembles the more contemporary, moody chamber-pop of Beck's Sea Change. The dozen songs here are ornate but never feel bogged down or overly mannered. The strings provide texture and color while allowing room for Monroe and her band's kinetic, muscular performances, everything from rollicking country-rock (“Hard on a Heart”) to sultry R&B grooves (“Hands on You”).
It doesn't hurt that Sparrow's elegant arrangements are supported by some of Monroe's most evocative songwriting to date. On “Orphan,” the narrator wonders why it's so hard for human begins to learn self-reliance, observing how young birds learn to fly all on their own. And “Mother's Daughter,” which concerns a girl who realizes too late that she's inherited her mother's wanderlust, is every bit as poignant. These and other songs are filled with regret, yet Sparrow isn't a downcast album: “Hands on You” is a slinky song about a missed opportunity for intimacy, and “Wild Love” shimmers and churns with its narrator's naked desire.
Monroe is unparalleled at fusing classicist country songwriting with a modern sheen, something she proved on The Blade, which deftly balances traditional country sounds with bubbly pop. With Sparrow, she's topped even that achievement, creating a rich and emotional album that feels deeply connected to the past but also fully engaged with the present.