Margo Price has been done with boxes and labels for a while, as she showed earlier this year on Strays. Its companion, Strays II, can be considered the completion of this leg of the journey. While her debut reimagined classic country sounds, Price is a restless talent who can’t be confined to one genre. On the Strays releases, she expands her sound further, adding more 1970s rock and psychedelia. One way to read the title is that the characters in the songs are often on the outskirts, but it could also be seen as the most significant swing she’s taken yet, as Margo Price strays from the country playbook more than ever.
At times, Price reminds one of another genre-hopping singer with killer pipes and an affinity for sun-soaked Laurel Canyon vibes, Jenny Lewis, detailing spiritual adventures and disappointing men. But Price is a little less cynical and overtly funny than Lewis, whose acerbic wit gives her songs a kick, whereas Price is more far-ranging in exploring what it all means. Given what the past few years have held for her (and for the rest of us), it is justified.
Price has been candid in interviews about her politics, the issues she’s tackling in her songs, and her views on them; it’s refreshing at a time when other prominent artists are less reticent to avoid alienating fans. The more fully she becomes herself, the stronger her songs become. She has mentioned artists like Neil Young, whose early 1980s records defiantly and calculatedly exploded record label expectations, as inspiration for this set of songs.
As has been widely reported, Strays’ genesis was a psilocybin-fueled writing adventure with Price’s husband. Spirituality is a theme on the record, but it is tempered with an emphasis on how religion is twisted to manipulate and control others on “Black Wolf Blues”, a pretty ballad with a sound that has roots in Neko Case‘s haunted rootsy noir. “Mind Travel” is more searching, referencing Verlaine and Rimbaud, while “Unoriginal Sin” could be about spiritual matters or an uncreative, disappointing partner. “Where Did We Go Wrong” plays with space as the gap between lovers drifting away from each other and also the galaxy.
Working again with Jonathan Edwards and Mike Campbell, Strays 2 was recorded at the same time as its predecessor and partially written on the fabled psilocybin mushrooms-fueled trip with her husband. Edwards brought a host of new connections and collaborators to Price, including Buck Meek singing backup on “Malibu”, a classic running-to-escape-your-troubles song.
While much of country music seems interested in sticking to the playbook and coloring inside the lines, Price understands that the best of the genre incorporates rock, soul, and folk to create something enduring. People will likely be listening to Strays much longer than the current roster of superstars who frequently seem more keen on aligning to conservative politics than carrying the torch of protest music the genre once held.
The opener and closer are two of Price’s strongest songs. “Strays” is a Bruce Springsteen-style rocker set twenty years prior. Like many other young-and-poor-in-love epics, it focuses on young lovers trying to get by. Price’s wordplay elevates the song above many other entries into this canon, including, “Can’t be a loser with nothing to lose / And beggars are choosers with nothing to choose.” it’s not far off from a later-period rave-up from the Hold Steady.
Closer “Burn Whatever’s Left” is a soulful dirge about leaving the past where it belongs. Where Springsteen has turned that theme into a “let’s leave tonight and forget all this”, epic multiple times, Price’s approach is different: “Build me a house for the memories I’ve kept / Then burn whatever’s left.” It’s an appropriate bookend to Strays opener, “Been to the Mountain”. Where that song announced that Price has seen some things, and she will be sharing some of that wisdom over the following several tracks, “Burn Whatever’s Left” not only provides some encouragement to people who are letting the past control them but also to keep the parts that serve you. It also provides closure for an impressive collection that has made her one of the most notable artists of this year. It will be exciting to hear what comes next.