In the nearly seven years since the release of her excellent debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, Margo Price’s career has gone from success to success – an SNL performance, a Grammy nomination and her first hit on the Billboard Alternative charts, among her many accolades. Accompanying her rising success has been a progressively bigger and bolder sound – which has led to hits like 2020’s “Twinkle Twinkle” – but occasionally has had the unfortunate effect of subsuming the idiosyncratic star’s voice into a tired and overbearing soundscape.
On the opener to her fourth album Strays, “Been To The Mountain”, Price proves that she can perform driving country-rockers without losing her distinctive identity. The defiant, if slightly clichéd, opening lines of “I’ve got nothing to sell / I’m not buying what you’ve got” are backed up later in the song as Price undergoes real, compelling self-examination – telling of her time as a waitress, on food stamps and “in the welfare line” – feeling like a “victim” and even a “tumour”. At one point, her voice breaks into a nearly feral scream as she cries “take your best shot”, and again when she declares, “this ain’t the end”. It’s a moment of triumph that will feel especially well-deserved to anyone who knows of Price’s personal history – including countless rejections from music labels and the death of her son, Ezra. What could have been a generic, disposable song in other hands, becomes a highly personable anthem in Price’s hands.
Strays is effectively an album of two halves; the first dominated by driving anthems like “Been To The Mountain”, while the second half is more hushed and patient. Unfortunately, attempts to recreate the opener’s charm largely fall flat in the album’s first leg. The Sharon Van Etten-feature “Radio” has the potential to be a great song, but Price reaches for a grand, climactic chorus before laying the necessary groundwork in the verses. The end result is somehow simultaneously over and underwhelming. The preceding “Light Me Up”, meanwhile, is effectively three songs in the campaign of one. The first leg of the song suggests a ballad, with tales of fading ambition set against a chord progression that bears an odd resemblance to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. But then out of seemingly nowhere, a driving country rock chorus comes in – depleting the song of any subtlety it previously enjoyed. Things seem to quiet down a bit before an extended guitar solo enters the mix.
Thankfully, listening to Strays becomes a more consistently enjoyable experience as the album progresses. If there’s a sense in the album’s first four tracks that Price felt pressure to write an obvious radio hit, on the remainder of the album she tunes out outside pressures and luxuriates in the space she has carved out for herself; subverting sonic expectations, rewarding listener patience, and penning affecting character studies and vignettes.
Strays‘ two longest songs, “County Road” and “Lydia”, are both tour-de-forces that rank among Price’s very best. The former offers devastating contrasts between the promise of youth and the often grim reality of adulthood, as Price tells of lost friendships, gentrification and yearning for what’s been lost. It’s often heavy, but it’s also grounded in fleeting moments of magic; the little oblivions that make the toughest periods of adulthood bearable. In Price’s case that involves smoking joints, drinking gin and shooting dice with her closest friends.
“Lydia”, meanwhile, covers much of the same ground, but with enough musical novelty and heightened attention to detail that spares it from feeling like a retread. The six minute number offers a meditation on all the many ways we may find our lives corrupted along the way – illegal drugs, prescription pill abuse and poverty, among them. In her distinctly Southern drawl, that recalls the late Loretta Lynn, she surveys the song’s troubled people with equal parts compassion and fatigue. It’s a staggeringly powerful statement – her voice so rich with feeling and her character studies so deeply affecting. It’s a reminder that though Price may still be fleeting between different sounds and styles with varying levels of success, when she finds one that suits her, the results are unparalleled in their power.