Nashville singer-songwriter Margo Price has spent the past half-dozen years showing she’s much more than a country artist. In 2016, she debuted with Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, a showcase of throwback honky-tonk and hard-edged drinking songs. The album helped crystallize and capture a rising demand for those throwback Nashville styles at the time, playing a fundamental role in their ongoing resurgence from stars like Chris Stapleton and Tyler Childers.
Since then, she’s broadened her scope of sounds, textures, and genres on each successive record: see the R&B leanings of 2017’s All American Made, or “I’d Die For You,” the closing statement of her 2020 record, That’s How Rumors Get Started. The song begins as straightforward roots-rock before gradually building into a grand arena-worthy centerpiece, with Price conjuring everyone from David Bowie to Linda Ronstadt as she belts the song’s refrain.
Strays, Price’s fourth album, continues in that same spirit of gentle redefinition. Sonically, the album isn’t so much a dramatic reinvention as much as the latest, and perhaps most comprehensive iteration of Price’s continually-evolving palette. Despite its scattershot title and the fact that it was recorded in five separate studios across Nashville and California, Strays feels like Price’s most cohesive collection yet guided by light West Coast shadings courtesy of Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Dawes).
Price finds ways to effectively and subtly tease out different shades from her longtime versatile band, the Price Tags. “Time Machine,” with its flare of Brill Building melodicism, is one thrilling new flavor that highlights Price’s range as a vocalist. “Radio,” featuring Sharon Van Etten, one of several decidedly non-country guests who appear in addition to Mike Campbell and Lucius, finds Price and her drummer Dillon Napier experimenting with loops.
The record’s most exciting moments are when Price fully stretches out as a storyteller: Songs like ‘County Road’ and “Lydia,” third-person character sketches that unfold into six-minute plus epics, serve as the album’s anchor. Much as the first song on her debut album “Hands of Time” unfolded Price’s own backstory with nuance and depth, these songs’ narratives unfold verse by verse, painting vivid, short-story worthy portraits of Americans struggling in a world of endless prisons, opioids and gentrification (for more on American dystopia, see “Hell in the Heartland”)
In the album’s best moments, Price has never sounded more in command of detail and scene-setting: “Remember when we got drunk that time in Ontario?” she asks on the former, over a foreboding piano melody. “Listening to Warren Zevon on the stereo?” Moments like these open up entire new worlds and future records for an artist who’s often at her best when she’s challenging herself to try something new.