By ditching any expectations for country radio and fully embracing her artistic instincts, Ashley McBryde’s sophomore album is sharper, stronger and livelier than her already great debut album.
The music industry’s tendency to favor business over music is frustrating, but understandable; country radio’s antiquated model of determining listener preferences, however, is just frustrating. The bad news is that, specifically in the country music genre, radio is still the most powerful tool in deciding what is and isn’t a hit; the good news is that there’s alternative avenues for artists to find “success” and collect “hits” in 2020, whatever those terms mean anyway.
In other words, it’s genuinely frustrating to see Ashley McBryde’s list of accomplishments – including CMA and ACM award show nominations (and wins, too), Grammy nominations and opening for Luke Combs – get recognized with her biggest hit … barely scraping the top 30 on the airplay charts, at least so far. But, like her contemporary, Kacey Musgraves, McBryde has found a better alternative and another way to move forward without relying on that medium.
And upon listening to her sophomore album, Never Will, it’s obvious to see McBryde knows that, sticking with Jay Joyce’s weirder, off-kilter production choices and framing the album around the concept of “making it” in the music industry. Sure, it’s not a far cry from what she did on her debut album, but without weaker cuts like “Radioland” and “American Scandal” weighing down this project, Never Will is an album that forgoes any concessions for radio and truly shows McBryde doubling down on her artistic instincts, and that just may be the better path to take anyway.
For Joyce, too, that’s an easy path to follow, especially when some of the guitar tones on the title track and “Hang In There Girl” sound like they were imported from an early Eric Church album (a compliment, for the record). Not to say that there aren’t some blemishes or that Joyce has picked up any knack for subtlety over time, but I’m more often a fan than I’m not: the low-simmering acoustics of “Shut Up Sheila” that progressively get more intense and erupt into full-blown rage by its end, the faster, liquid plucked mandolin strums and murkier bass of “Voodoo Doll” that alternates between soft and loud dynamics to a fantastic degree, or just how much the glistening textures add a punch to “Hang In There Girl” and the title track that emphasizes their melodies.
For the most part, too, the percussive elements are some of the most interesting ones I’ve heard on a mainstream country album in awhile, though I’m not always a fan of how they overtake the mix; the most glaring example being “Martha Divine.” And for as much as I otherwise like “Velvet Red,” that vocal filter just ruins it – they didn’t need to make the older, folk-sounding song sound old, after all.
But for as much as I can make the artistic comparison to Kacey Musgraves and the musical comparison to Eric Church, McBryde has no trouble standing out on her own. With “Voodoo Doll” and “Never Will” alone she proves she’s got the pipes to tackle those bigger, anthemic choruses, even if I’m not wild about how the production drowns her out on the former track. It feels like somewhat of a cop-out to say this, too, but the most striking element of McBryde’s performances is her sincerity. She’ll be blunt and acknowledge she’s just feeding her loneliness on “One Night Standards” just as she’ll rip the titular character apart for intervening on her and her family’s grieving process as a loved one suffers on “Shut Up Sheila.”
And, of course, even when looking past the dramatic stakes of the stories present, the title track may be a rewrite of “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” but I’m inclined to like both of them for different reasons. For one, they speak to different perspectives – one where she’s “made it” even when she really hasn’t, and one where she’s going to sing the hell out of her victory lap acknowledging all of those aforementioned accomplishments – and when there’s a cathartic punch to the melody and progression, it’s a genuine highlight. In many ways, too, she still is that lost artist unsure of how to really take it all in, and she’s not about to forget how chasing that dream once led to a genuine loneliness on “Sparrow” or what motivated her to keep going on “Hang In There Girl.”
If anything, there’s a general sense of reflection on this album, evident most on one of the album’s best tracks, “Stone,” where she only begins to really understand her brother’s mindset with the passing of time and a more wry perspective. Sometimes it takes facing those harder truths to find general peace and stability, and even if the characters on “One Night Standards” don’t find it, or, rather, find it in their own way on “Shut Up Sheila,” with time, like on “Velvet Red,” it’ll come.
For the most part, too, the writing aims to reach that thematic arc through a nuanced perspective, though I did find “First Thing I Reach For” to be a little boilerplate for its sentiment, and even if the murder ballad (or rather, the “bury you alive” ballad) is anything but that on “Martha Divine,” the framing remains odd; dear ol’ dad shouldn’t get away so easily while his lover suffers, and even then, it’s a bit overdone as a whole. The main point of contention, however, is going to be “Styrofoam,” a silly track that may as well be her version of “Red Solo Cup” … which I actually quite liked until the line about callously disregarding the environmental impact – not cool, though if the line wasn’t included at all it wouldn’t have mattered, which is the real shame.
Still, Never Will is an all-around slam dunk that not only avoids a sophomore slump for McBryde, but actively sees her pushing her writing and other strengths into new, interesting directions. And with how dark and straightforward some of these tracks are, I can also see radio being even somehow less on board with this than they were with her debut. That’s a shame, because it’s only their loss.
(Decent to strong 8/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Never Will,” “Stone,” “Hang In There Girl,” “Voodoo Doll,” “Sparrow”
- Least favorite track: “Martha Divine”