Chris Martin claims that taking mushrooms taught him about the meaning of the universe; Harry Styles’ psilocybin track is a dull vibe piece about a woman who “lives in daydreams with me.” Celebrated Nashville striver Margo Price, thankfully, is keeping the burgeoning microgenre of songwriters on hallucinogenic detours at least a little zany. She and her husband and collaborator, Jeremy Ivey, went on an extended mushroom trip to write much of her fourth album, Strays, and less than three minutes in, she’s screaming: “Do you ever walk down the street and do you think to yourself… Am I being watched, man!?”
Price is no stranger to mythmaking: Only one of her albums has touched the upper half of the Billboard 200, and she’s already published her first memoir. But as that delightfully paranoid line on “Been to the Mountain” suggests, she’s not particularly prone to American dream fantasia. Although it may be a mushrooms record, Strays is less about stopping to look at the rainbows than finding a cosmic sense of empathy. Where Price once actively wrestled with her past and the fraught political landscape around her, she now assumes the role of wise, weary passerby, watching the wreckage of the world from afar as she keeps on cruising.
In the place of protest songs or personal exorcisms, Strays bursts with easy confidence and kind, stoic pearls of wisdom. “Though the picture’s always changing/You can’t change how the story goes,” she sings on “Landfill,” as she contemplates the regrets and false starts of her life. The lyric offers something like a mission statement for Strays. Price quit drinking between records and she’s said that she’s “feeling [her] emotions more deeply” than before. True to that process, this album mostly eschews personal specifics in favor of songs that try to capture the openness and freedom of forging forward sans baggage.
After 2020’s That’s How Rumors Get Started buried her idiosyncrasies under manicured production that felt overly reverential to ’70s classic rock, Price and producer Jonathan Wilson work to open up her sound. Here, she brings in collaborators slightly outside her wheelhouse (Sharon Van Etten) and others very much within (indie-pop duo Lucius, the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell), nodding to both the loose unspooling of psych rock and the clean minimalism of synth pop. “Radio,” a collaboration with Van Etten, begins with little more than a minimalist drum pattern before bursting into a sweeping, Springsteenish road anthem that could be a sequel to Van Etten’s own “Mistakes”: “People try to push me around/Change my face and change my sound,” Price sings. “But I can’t hear them, I tuned them out.”
A song later, on “Change of Heart,” she contends with her own checkered, well-documented history over an incessant, rollicking blues riff, singing, “I quit trying to change the past/I had a change of heart.” Price’s backstory has been welded to her music since the beginning—her debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, was basically bildungsroman in the form of wrenching country-folk—and on these songs, she sings about letting go.
As opposed to the tightly laced, high-shine Rumors, Strays feels warm and permeable, and small moments—like the drum machine on “Radio,” or the xylophone that wanders through “Time Machine”—remove the feeling that Price is recreating for recreation’s sake. She still has her pet musical fixations, and they sometimes feel a little familiar, even within the context of her own catalog: On “County Road” she slips into a chugging, wistful groove that evokes Fleetwood Mac, and the Lucius collaboration “Anytime You Call” splits the difference between her beloved Tom Petty and the soul influences of her past two albums.
That’s not to say Strays doesn’t find new territory for Price as a songwriter. On “County Road,” she sings to someone who died in a car crash. But the lives of both narrator and subject are watery and dreamlike; most of their shared memories are flashes of “listening to Warren Zevon” and playing dice. Across the track, Price writes twinned narratives of one life cut short and another stuck in a loop of the same roads, the same bars, and the same drinks. It’s one of two character studies on the album; the other, “Lydia,” is a grizzled and grueling ballad about a woman seeking an abortion, unable to raise a baby without health insurance. “Just make a decision, Lydia,” Price sings, her voice raw and papery, a sobering contrast to the rest of Strays. These two highlights typify Price’s new outlook: While she’s writing less about the details of her own experience, her music still speaks to life’s murky specifics.