Margo Price’s new album is the work of a singer ready to shake up preconceived notions. The Nashville musician has been doing that all along to a degree, but That’s How Rumors Get Started is a conscious—and sometimes self-conscious—step out from under the shadow of all the “bright future of country music” buzz that surrounded her previous solo work.
That’s How Rumors Get Started is Price’s third LP as a solo artist, after three previous albums fronting the Nashville band Buffalo Clover. If that group had a shaggy late-’60s blues-rock bent à la Big Brother and the Holding Company, Price certainly leaned more toward the sound of fiddles and pedal steel guitar on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter in 2016 and All American Made in 2017. The latter even featured a duet with Willie Nelson. This time around, there’s as much blustery rock and hard-edged soul as there is country twang.
Some of that change is probably due to Price’s old pal Sturgill Simpson, who produced the album and assembled a band to play on it, in place of Price’s usual road band. On the other hand, the mix of sounds is more in line with what Price presents onstage in concert. When it works here, she demonstrates a certain amount of breadth as a performer. Yet it doesn’t always work. There’s a difference between upending expectations and contrarian posturing, and the songwriting on That’s How Rumors Get Started isn’t consistently sharp enough to strike the right balance. Price goes for broad strokes on these 10 songs, musically and lyrically, sometimes at the expense of her strengths as a singer.
She has a light, feathery voice that can get swallowed up by too much bombast when it’s not well-supported. Price does just fine on the quieter numbers here, murmuring dolefully over spare, stinging guitar licks on “What Happened to Our Love,” about a relationship that has drifted to pieces. There’s melancholy in her voice on “Gone to Stay,” a heartbreaker of a song about watching her son grow up from a distance while she’s away on the road, and she radiates regret for the lost time, backed by a mix of guitars, piano and cooing harmony vocals.
Price shows an uncharacteristic flash of power on “Hey Child,” a maximalist country-soul tune packed full of keyboards, buttery guitar licks and rich backing vocals from the Nashville Friends Gospel Choir. Price pushes her limits as she belts out lyrics urging someone in tough circumstances to take a hard look at how they’re living, and the choir helps hold things steady while the music surges up around the rich vocal layers. It’s a showstopper of a song, and surely the centerpiece of the album.
Elsewhere, she too often undercuts herself with lyrics that are unconvincing, or simply clunky. Price sounds detached on the title track, which opens the record, distractedly telling off the rumor starter with a string of muddled cliches, but as if she were also checking the time and maybe looking up directions while scrolling through Yelp reviews on her phone. Price is indignant on “Stone Me,” or could be if she hadn’t gotten bogged down in a string of non-sequitur lyrics about living in glass houses, picking sides and fighting the good fight “all on your own.” “Almost went broke just from paying dues,” she sings over a sleek blend of piano and acoustic guitars, but, well, isn’t that more or less the definition of paying dues? Maybe the point of the song is that life is full of contradictions? It’s not clear, and Price sounds ambivalent about the whole thing.
She’s better, by far, on “Twinkle Twinkle,” a blaring rocker, where she offers a more vivid account of paying dues on her long, circuitous route to stardom. “Playin’ dives, tryin’ to stay alive / Twinkle, twinkle little star,” she sings over rowdy guitars. In that sense, Price has definitely upended expectations, by gutting her way through the disappointment, self-doubt and financial peril of a musician hoping for a break. She’s earned hers, to be sure, but That’s How Rumors Get Started suggests that she’s still getting her bearings after such a tumultuous ride.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.