THE WASHINGTON POST – Like any great country songwriter, Ashley McBryde knows how to squeeze copious human drama into a pithy tune. On her new album, Never Will, the living spaces are packed extra tight.
There’s a teenager stuck in a mobile home, straining to dream of a bigger future. There’s a grandmother dying in a hospital room overcrowded with beeping machines and people who won’t shut up.
There’s an emotionally distant father who, after saying grace, fills the dining room with a paralysing silence. The more claustrophobic the setting, the higher the stakes. When McBryde asks an adulterer to ponder the cosiness of a freshly dug grave, it almost counts as comic relief.
The album starts in a trailer park with Hang In There Girl, where McBryde is cheering for a girl – “about 15, grey sweatpants” – who needs to survive her adolescence before she can bother to dream of what comes after.
McBryde makes the guitars do Mellencampy things, but they quiet down during the titular refrain, which shimmers like a Fleetwood Mac song being played on digital harpsichords in paradise. It’s one of the few times her music takes us by surprise.
Most everywhere else, the instrumentation stays traditional, so as not to siphon any suspense from the story lines.
McBryde is resourceful with tempo, too. During One Night Standards, she’s chatting up some stranger at closing time, but the music’s measured pace tells us she’s as patient as she is lonely as she is sober. “Can’t you just use me like I’m using you?” she asks over that disenchanted rhythm.
Then she glances into her immediate future with a somersaulting rhyme: “How it goes is: Bar closes, there’s no king bed covered in roses, just a room without a view/ I don’t want a number you ain’t gonna answer, let’s just stick to the one-night standards.” Does honesty get more brutal than that?
It does. Shut Up Sheila is the song set in the hospital, but thankfully Sheila isn’t the grandma in extremis. She’s a God-fearing interloper – maybe a neighbour or someone’s new fiancé – offering unsolicited advice to a stressed-out family as they prepare to grieve their matriarch.
While an acoustic guitar glints dis-creetly in the background, McBryde loses her temper with Sheila in the third line: “Why don’t you and Jesus take a walk down the hallway?”
During Stone, she frames that short fuse as something she inherited from a taciturn father – and then she lights it with Martha Divine, a song aimed directly at that philandering dad’s secret girlfriend. “I’ve got this feeling,” McBryde sings, “and I’ve got this shovel.” Yes, that’s an absolutely lethal opening line, but where’s the benefit of the doubt? How do we know Mrs Divine hasn’t applied McBryde’s “one night standards” to the singer’s father, using him the same way he’s using her?
Alas, this is a country album, not a morality puzzle – and if we’re actually keep-ing score, McBryde’s lyrics almost always stick up for the wounded, the flawed, the lonesome and the misunderstood.
The only cut that doesn’t fully check out is Styrofoam, a song that prioritises the coldness of today’s worldover the habitability of tomorrow’s planet.
From a hard-truth-teller like McBryde, it sounds, should we say, uncharacteristically sociopathic? But there’s a backstory. Styro-foam was written by the late Randall Clay, a songwriter who helped pen three of the best songs on McBryde’s previous album, Girl Going Nowhere.
Here, McBryde is memorialising a lost friend, singing waggish lyrics in gracious tones. Plus, when Clay sang Styrofoam in his scorched twang, he sounded like he was having a laugh at humanity’s impending doom. McBryde’s delivery is too bright for any dark humour to land. Instead of a wink, there’s something else in her eye.