Ashley Monroe refuses to choose sides in the feud between commercial country and the “alt” variety. Her third LP imagines a 2015 mainstream by reflecting what it once was — Loretta and Dolly in the Sixties, sure, but also Emmylou in the Eighties and Reba in the Nineties. Witness the title track, which flips a shopworn love-hurts metaphor (“You caught it by the handle/And I caught it by the blade”) into a polished ballad that bares its scars right through to the final, pained “baby.” The song is all impeccable phrasing and sweet-tea tone; its brilliance is almost a dare, refusing to dangle radio-bait carrots or Twitter-bait punchlines.
Monroe’s writing hasn’t lacked for wit — see her 2013 breakthrough single, “Weed Instead of Roses” — but The Blade dials it back. The giddiest numbers are “I Buried Your Love Alive,” a graveyard-rock strut that imagines the Cramps as a Nashville act, and “Winning Streak,” a roadhouse honky-tonker with Jordanaires-style backing. Yet neither masks the pain she’s grinning through. On “Bombshell,” Monroe delivers the album’s most arena-worthy moment by singing the unlikely words “I . . . can’t . . . love . . . you . . . anymore” over a triumphant build. You won’t know whether to whoop or weep. It’s a beautiful thing.