Margo Price's Cosmic American Music

listening to Strays

Margo Price's Cosmic American Music
on the way to death valley, 2011

I haven’t had a relationship with a record like the one I am currently in with Margo Price’s Strays for a very long time. There’s a handful of records where I am deliberate and particular about when I listen to it. It’s not background, it’s not driving from point A to point B, it’s the kind of record that I put it on when I am able to listen and soak it up and make sure I am able to feel it. I needed this record.

Every time I put it on it feels like I have known it forever. I hear the lyrics and they make me think and I can pull them out of my head on automatic pilot, and different lines jump out every time, like that second verse in “Been To The Mountain,” the poetry of the juxtapositions, child/mother, victim/tumour, and my favorite, “Used to be your waitress/but now I’m a consumer” (and particularly admire the ‘but’ there, it’s not accidental or incidental, it is a key element of the cadence). This song is a grown woman taking stock, looking back, and liking where she is right now very much on a record that’s very much about all that. The melody is lush and trippy and gorgeous, with a burbling Farfisa organ underneath it all that’s both a girl in a maxi dress twirling at a Dead show and Edie Sedgwick dancing in a black sheath at the Factory. I am especially in love with the moment at about 2:50 where she invokes Patti, that breathless race of words tumbling over each other. It wasn’t until the eighth or ninth listen when I had to admit that this could fit in very well on a Patti Smith album back in the day but that’s not because she sounds like her, or attempts to channel her in that one moment, but because the song is pulling from the same classic elements that the Patti Smith Group did in their heyday and executes it with knowledge, understanding and aplomb.

This is a record that gets its hooks in you and then reveals itself layer after layer with repeated listening. Even songs where I thought “Okay, not my favorite” -- didn’t know if I loved “Radio” and I pretty much will love any song that’s about radio, but now I will happily put it on a loop because it is champagne for your ears, it is uplifting and quirky and “only thing I have on is the radio” is sly and sexy and smart, underscored by a steel guitar that is all of those things and more. “Light Me Up” just straight ahead made tears start sneaking out of the corners of my eyes, it’s a Led Zeppelin song I actually like, which is helped to no end by the presence of Mike Campbell on it, who is probably the diametric opposite of Jimmy Page and I mean that in terms of spirit and energy (because I’d absolutely match the two of them on ability any day of the week and twice on Sunday).

I was halfway into this record for the first listen when I thought, this is Cosmic American Music. That was Gram Parsons’ thing, the combination of a specific mixture of genres and influences, what he tried to do with the Burritos and what the Byrds tried to do - I say ‘tried’ not as a diss on anyone because everyone will tell you that they didn’t quite reach the heights they tried and wanted to reach to establish that particular art form. The “American” in there wasn’t an afterthought, not in any kind of jingoistic sense, he meant the music that came from this country, this land, that started in blues and gospel and put down roots and everywhere it emerged it got used to become something else. That’s also the Cosmic part. But it’s not American Music unless there are women writing and singing and playing it and the women have been doing that, they just haven’t been included in the circle. That is a longer essay for another time, but listening to Strays was a decided eureka moment for me on that front.Other women have come close -- I’m thinking Lucinda, I think Lone Justice were heading in that direction, some of the Paisley Underground like Mazzy Star or Hugo Largo -- but I don’t know that anyone else has hit this specific nail on the head quite like Margo does here. And I’m not sure I realized how much I needed that to happen until the pieces slid into place listening to the first half of Strays. Representation is important. The ability to stretch and take risks is important. Being able to play with all of the blocks in the Cosmic American Music sandbox is also important, but even more important is being able to do it well, and come out of it with something that’s akin but not a carbon copy, something that moves the conversation forward. Also, I have spent a little bit of time in Topanga Canyon and I can testify that it is absolutely a magical place. I’m not surprised that this record came from there.

“In my heart there’s a hole/Twice the size of God” she sings in the middle of “Hell In The Heartland” and it’s about loving the wrong person and taking too many of the wrong drugs and it’s also about trying to be something that you’re not, both in the personal and professional sense. It’s really fucking hard to write a song about multiple things and have it not fall down on one side. The way the tempo picks up at the end as she continues to sing “You’re everything I want/In someone I don’t want anymore” again and again as the song fades out is a perfect capture of your mind spinning when you’re trying to make good decisions, or sometimes any decisions. It’s just electric.

“Country Road” is the song of the year, maybe the decade. I am in the truck, I am on the porch, I am in another adjacent reality or lifetime and I can see the sun just dropping down into magic hour and smell night blooming jasmine and dust. A door creaks. The screen door slams. The song makes my heart is break for a time and a life I never knew. That’s a handful of piano notes, a low steel guitar line thrumbing like a pulse, a voice on the edge of regret and a sound so full of warmth you could almost reach out and touch it. It pulls you into the room with the musicians. The production on this record is gorgeous and also perfect, perfect in that you can hear everything you need to hear in a way that’s smart and skillful and honestly just sublime. It is a joy to listen to, it is a thing of beauty. (Try to listen to this record on CD through good headphones if you can. Or at least on CD, not via streaming, it’s honestly, truly not the same.)

I know a lot of people want to play ‘match the influence’ on this record and it’s annoying to me because it reduces the discussion of the artist's work to what a listener recognizes. I tweeted about one song on this record and was met with a dozen or so responses naming the influences the person heard, when all I said was, “This is the song of the year.” (I didn’t say more because I do not work for Twitter.) I could do that too but that’s not what my job is. Is this the fault of the decline of music journalism? Probably in the same way there’s one leading music blog who thinks a concert review is publishing the setlist from and then 50 unedited photographs of the show. That is… information about the show at best. Just like playing spot-the-influence in a vacuum isn’t any kind of interesting conversation to have about any record worth talking about. And it’s reductive and insulting to do it on a record as gigantic and essential as this one, and you don’t need to know all of those things to know how this record makes you feel. It is all of those things and none of those things. It is itself. It is a musician who knows herself working with musicians who know each other, writing and playing music emerging from years of work and writing and playing and living. It is fantastic. I can’t wait to hear it live. I’ll be the woman in the black dress, twirling in the back.