Arts album review

Ashley McBryde rocks in ‘Never Will’

McBryde goes personal in her new album

Never Will
Ashley McBryde
Warner Music Nashville
April 3, 2020

Ashley McBryde’s Never Will builds upon her legacy as a powerful songwriter with a catchy blend of rock and country.

The album kick starts with “Hang In There Girl,” an empowering anthem that references her own childhood with witty but moving lines such as “Half a mile on the other side / Of the low water bridge and the poverty line.” The persistent rock is stripped down to an acoustic guitar and drums during the choruses, giving those lines time to resonate with the listener.

Likewise, the penultimate and titular track “Never Will” shares similar themes. It’s an emotional song for sure, but it’s not afraid to bite with heavy drums and electric guitars. The song is a middle finger to McBryde’s naysayers: “I’d be gone long ago if I’d listened / To what they were sayin’,” arguing that her haters have merely “started a fire they can’t control.” The song resembles the titular track on her previous album (Girl Going Nowhere) in message, and I wonder if this trend will continue with her future projects.

“Sparrow,” sixth in the album, breaks from most of the rock songs with a classic country ballad. It contrasts with “Hang In There Girl” and “Never Will” in that McBryde sings about how she longs for an ordinary life with her newfound success (“For a sparrow / Who wouldn’t trade nothing for the way it feels to fly / It ain’t fair though / How you miss the ground when you’re out here in the sky”). She sings to a family member about how much she misses being with them, bringing the track to an emotional high by ending on a harmonized and slowed-down “sparrow.”

In contrast, “One Night Standards” resembles her prior songs “American Scandal” and “Tired of Being Happy” and highlights the desperation of someone accepting a one-night stand for what it is. It starts with a mandolin and organ, but quickly falls back to a guitar and drum track, with the mandolin returning for the chorus. The insignificance of a one-night stand contrasts powerfully with McBryde’s emotional writing, with lines like “Can’t you just use me like I’m using you?” and “Well, I ain’t Cinderella, but who is? / Call me what you want if the shoe fits.”

Almost like a continuation of that track (“Another night of bad decisions / There’s one still laying in my bed”), “First Thing I Reach For” is an addictive song over a jaunty beat that depicts alcohol and cigarette use. The singer puts off a headache from the night before with brown liquor in coffee and smokes “even though / I can hardly breathe.” McBryde is adept at contrasting dark lyrics with upbeat melodies, as shown in her previous album’s standout “Livin’ Next to Leroy,” and this song is no exception. The fact that she drinks liquor, a depressant, with coffee, a stimulant, seems to encapsulate that very idea.

As opposed to the message of those tracks, however, the fifth song on the record, “Voodoo Doll” shows McBryde on the other side of an unfaithful relationship. It’s insanely catchy, but as we may come to expect by now, this means the lyrics will not go gently. And gentle they are not: “It’s one hell of a curse / I know she ain’t sleepin’ ’cause I ain’t sleepin’,” telling the third party that “You got yourself a voodoo doll.” Her vocals almost approach growling territory over an otherwise smooth and slow chorus, making me throw a few fist-pumps. The electric guitar instrumental break is delightful, too.

The inclusion of these tracks together is a curious choice upon first listen. However, as depicted with other themes with conflicting messages throughout the album, they serve to underscore the different ways McBryde copes with grief. Likewise, “Shut Up Sheila” and “Stone” both address death, but do so with jarringly opposite tones.

“Shut Up Sheila” tells of a grandmother’s death in a hospital room. McBryde scolds Sheila for her inability to shut up about religious traditions surrounding death. The song contrasts with the devotion to religion seen in most country music; McBryde suggests instead that religion is separate from grieving. It starts with instrumentals that resemble a declining heart rate monitor. The song escalates into rock just before the second chorus to emphasize McBryde’s resentment toward Sheila, singing “Shut up Sheila / I don’t remember asking you / And if we want to throw the ashes off the goddamn roof / Then we’re going to.”

The gentler ninth track is my favorite on the record. “Stone” moved me to tears as McBryde mourns her rocky relationship with her brother prior to his suicide. The imagery is captivating, and the lyrics are cunning, toying with the concept of a stone in symbolic ways, like building a wall, getting blood from one, being cut from the same stone, or having to carry a heavy one. Furthermore, she incorporates skipping, throwing, rolling, and stepping stones seamlessly into the lyrics. But the most painful hits near the end of the song, above a soft repeated two-tone riff: “Yeah, there’s a lot of things that should be written in one / But your name ain’t one of ‘em.”

In contrast to the tone of “Stone,” however, “Martha Divine” sees McBryde lashing out at her stepmother. The instrumentals sound angry, and McBryde goes all out in the lyrics, saying in more eloquent terms that Martha should go to hell. She concludes the song by chanting “Martha Divine / Your ass is mine / And it ain't murder if I bury you alive.” This is a side of McBryde I’ve never heard before, and honestly, all murder aside, I’m here for it.

Amidst all this, “Velvet Red” is my favorite story-telling song on the record, sung entirely with an oldies-radio vocal effect. It speaks to social class, like “Hang In There Girl,” telling the story of a mayor’s daughter who gets pregnant from having a forbidden affair with a poor winemaking boy. Indeed, the entire song references wine with “drunk,” “thirst,” and “fruit of the vine,” so even with its fairy-tale forest imagery, one cannot but help feel unsettled. Even velvet red, the color of the lovers’ bed sheets, is the same color as wine. The song is bittersweet: “There was a child born twenty years ago / To a mother who never wed / And though she gave no name for the father / She called her daughter Little Velvet Red.”

The album closes with the upbeat, half-spoken, yet puzzling “Styrofoam.” Its inclusion, especially as the closing track, seems incongruent with the rest of the album. I enjoy the song’s experimental direction, but admittedly its history-lesson feel is not my favorite.

Never Will as a whole is one of the best albums I’ve heard this year and continues to show how talented of a singer-songwriter McBryde is. In an unfortunately male-dominated country music scene, she takes the crown as one of country music’s finest.