Margo Price Explores Relationships, Motherhood, and Society on ‘That’s How Rumors Get Started’
Nashville singer-songwriter Margo Price releases her third album amid plenty of fanfare, having earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 2018, and been widely recognized as a fresh talent in country music. Her debut, 2016’s “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” drew critical acclaim for its judicious balance of traditional and contemporary aesthetics, and her follow up, “All American Made,” found Price ambitiously expanding her sound to incorporate elements of indie rock, R&B, and more. Price’s latest offering, “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” demonstrates a mature artistic development, with a shift away from the directness of her earlier work, toward more nuanced and open-ended reflections on relationships, motherhood, and society at large. With production from Sturgill Simpson, the record considerably expands Price’s musical palette, and adds a new dimension to her songwriting.
The title track rings like a bittersweet love letter set to a timeless piano pop tune. Price sings with a type of endearing disapproval mirrored by a plaintive but wistful melody with a cinematic feel. The suggestive declaration of the title is kept elegantly open ended, and it sets the album off on an impressionistic note. Price then channels the same romantic lamentations into a more rhythmic avenue on “Letting Me Down,” a punchy, upbeat track with the band in spirited concert, and Price at her most ebullient as she sings, “Everybody’s lonely,” and goes on to cheekily urge, “Keep letting me down.” Sturgill Simpson provides backing vocals, although you can only hear the spectre of a deeper voice meshing with Price’s, as if to validate her sentiment through its faintness.
“Twinkle Twinkle” brings some grit and edge, with a driving distorted guitar riff that frames Price’s candied singalong in a classic rock context. The track chugs along with an instrumental refrain that could have been clipped from power pop hair metal, with Price riffing off the energy and bursting into almost cheerleader chant, while keeping her lyrics decidedly off color, reflecting, “If it don’t break you / It might just make you rich / You might not get there / And on the way it’s a bitch.” She rattles it out with a nihilistic relish that celebrates despair with a flippant nonchalance. With her bona fide sarcasm, lines like “I was havin a ball until I threw it too far” roll off the tongue sweetly, and the titular nursery rhyme strikes like the final acerbic sting.
Price continues to string together harsh words to sweet melodies on “Stone Me,” a swaying singalong with a chorus of “Call me a bitch / Then call me baby,” building to a reminder of “You don’t own me,” expressed with an attitude that lives up to Leslie Gore’s in her song of that name. “Hey Child” takes a more sincere tone, denser and darker, with an organ-laden backdrop that erupts into a spirited chorus replete with gospel backing singers. The drawback to a song like this is that Price’s light and airy voice doesn’t quite carry the weight of a heavy, soulful chorus. There’s a frivolous quality to her timbre that’s better suited to lighthearted fare, whether ironic or earnest.
“Heartless Mind” brings novel textures, with an almost new wave stomp, reminiscent of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Organs, skittering drums, and flying, dueling guitars back Price as she runs through a sprightly singsong with a memorable refrain about a “mindless heart” and a “heartless mind.” “What Happened to Our Love” launches back into heavier, darker territory, with a raunchy, sluggish guitar and an oblique vocal melody. This time, Price is up to task, her singing escalating to a dramatic wail that could be the emotional apex of the album. She shifts gears elegantly, rebounding to another light, jaunty tune, “Gone to Stay,” which belies the gravity of the subject matter, about a mother’s wary observance of time taking its toll, as her son lives and learns. Price succinctly zeroes in on the immutability of time, noting, “The river it runs only one way, and when it’s gone, it’s gone to stay.”
“Prisoner of the Highway” is a somber reckoning about life as a touring musician, and the sacrifices it entails. Written when Price first learned she was pregnant, it captures the uncertainty of the situation, with a bittersweet romance about it. Gospel choirs return, echoing Price’s lamentations, and bolstering her resilience. Finally, “I’d Die For You” is a dramatic closer that functions at once as both a personal statement of fidelity and a bit of social commentary. Price observes, “People can’t even afford to live… It’s just the corporate structure of the world we live in,” but in the face of it all, ends up resolute and passionate, repeating the eponymous declaration in the most epic fashion.
“That’s How Rumors Get Started” is a grown up album that finds Price taking a step back, and saying more with less. Her new songs are still autobiographical, for the most part, but less direct, with a bolder creative license than ever before. The songs alternate between tunes of cheeky provocation and somber studies of growing pains. Sturgill Simpson makes invaluable contributions, fleshing out Price’s sound into rich, versatile forms. Price is not exactly the most expressive or dynamic singer, and there are times when her limited range holds her back from realizing the full potential of songs. More often, however, she uses her blithe, honeyed voice to its full emotive advantage, and brings her art to new levels with clever, creative lyrics set to punchy and poignant tunes.
“That’s How Rumors Get Started” is available July 10 on Apple Music.