Ashley Monroe has just finished up her successful U.K. and European tour where she played solo acoustic, showcasing the power of her honeyed voice. So it is fitting then that everyone can now hear five songs from her excellent 2018 album Sparrow in a similarly stylish and stripped back arrangement.
Sparrow was one of my favourite albums of last year – a lush and ambitious work that defied easy genre categorisation. That alone is a good reason why releasing acoustic versions of these songs is a worthwhile endeavour. After all, it is unlikely she would ever be able to recreate the studio versions exactly live, so this gives us a glimpse of how well these songs work with just her guitar, piano and one violin played beautifully by Eamon McLoughlin.
The EP begins with what is essentially the title track of the album, Orphan. She sings the lines: ‘How does a sparrow know more than I? / When the mother is gone it learns how to fly / with no direction, its wings in the wind / how does a bird know more than I?’, comparing the difficulties of her own childhood abandonment with the certainties of the natural world around her. It’s a poignant piece of personal history brought starkly to life.
After such an intense song Monroe then switches the tone with Hands on You and Wild Love, which explore secret sexual desire. She has regrets about missed opportunities and yearns for someone to make her ‘feel alive again’. These songs are about fantasies but they concern real emotions, conveying honest truths about women’s internal lives. On Paying Attention she is so caught up with her obsessive love she can’t think straight. It was inspired by the time she lost her dog and Monroe uses that emotional experience to explore wider relationships too. Maybe these new versions lose some of their original grandeur but a more simple style is not necessarily a bad thing for a country singer with a voice as stunning as Monroe’s.
The final song Keys to The Kingdom also concluded the original album and works well here as an ending to this shorter selection of songs. She sings of finding a paradise filled with everything, and everyone, she loves. It’s a soothing and sublime song, a worthy end to this heavenly collection.
Sparrow (Acoustic Sessions) is a real gift for fans, and a welcome opportunity for anyone who overlooked the original album to hear five of the strongest tracks delivered in a raw and intimate way.