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Ashley McBryde makes brutal honesty sound bright as hell

Country singer Ashley McBryde’s new album, “Never Will,” is full of tight spaces and human drama. (Daniel Miegs)

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. The more claustrophobic the setting, the higher the stakes. When McBryde asks an adulterer to ponder the coziness 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, gray 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 neighbor or someone’s new fiance — offering unsolicited advice to a stressed-out family as they prepare to grieve their matriarch. While an acoustic guitar glints discreetly 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?”

On “Martha Divine,” she takes direct aim at a philandering dad’s secret girlfriend. “I’ve got this feeling,” McBryde sings, “and I’ve got this shovel.” Yes, holy hell, 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 keeping 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 prioritizes the coldness of today’s booze over 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. “Styrofoam” 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 memorializing 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 humor to land. Instead of a wink, there’s something else in her eye.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the subject of the song “Stone,” which is about Ashley McBryde’s brother, not her father. The references have been removed from this version.)

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