You could read any number of myriad think pieces about bro country to learn more about the complicated gender dynamics of country music. Or you could just delve into Angaleena Presley's Wrangled. Though it isn't exactly a concept album like her 2014 debut, American Middle Class, it certainly packs a thematic punch, as it's full of women who feel trapped in their lives, jobs, and marriages. Some are even ensnared within the gears of country music itself. Taken as a whole, Wrangled feels like an antidote to some of the more testosterone-driven material that's come out of Nashville in recent years.
“Country” confronts bro country head-on, and in gloriously satirical fashion. The song is fueled by revved-up rock guitars and features a swaggering Kid Rock-style verse from rapper Yelawof, with Presley stitching brutish catchphrases into a litany of dumb clichés. “This is country!” she growls, lampooning the genre's propensity for self-aggrandizement. The song is a one-note joke, and its placement toward the front of Wrangled somewhat stalls the album's momentum, but it's still a bold dose of pointed parody.
The best material here is more empathetic. The title track is the heart's cry of a woman who feels like she's a prisoner in her own life; she wants to escape but just doesn't know how. “High School,” which tells the story of a pregnant teen who sees all the opportunities in front of her evaporate, could fit perfectly on an album by the Pistol Annies, of which Presley is a part. Boys want the prom queen, she sighs, not the mother-to-be.
Wrangled's artwork feels like a throwback, its font and layout recalling country album covers from the 1960s—something that undercuts the album's conceptual nature and shifts attention to the music itself, which has the kind of tight, hooky songcraft that might have resulted in a string of hit singles in a bygone era. (Some of the album's co-writers include Wanda Jackson, Chris Stapleton, and the late Guy Clark.) The songs are steeped in country lore: Though a track like “Country” shows that Presley has been paying attention to contemporary country music, “Outlaw” harkens back to the 1970s heyday of Willie and Waylon, co-opting their tough, stripped-to-the-bone style.
Wrangled feels like an antidote to some of the more testosterone-driven material coming out of Nashville.
The twist here is that, while those artists were proud of their outsider status, Presley's narrator doesn't want to be a fugitive; she just wants a happy, normal life. “Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me,” she sings. “I've spent my whole damn life trying to fit back in.”
Throughout, the album's arrangements, like the songwriting, exhibit a casual virtuosity. “Mama I Tried” sounds like a companion piece to Merle Haggard's “Mama Tried,” but Presley marries its outlaw spirit to modern rock guitars. “High School” takes the shape of a swaying, prom-night slow dance, but the song opens with a banjo figure that tethers it to hillbilly music. “Good Girl Down” starts with sonorous upright bass, a retro touch that gradually gives way to a more contemporary edge: barbed-wire guitars and clattering percussion that together evoke a Tom Waits song.
On Wrangled, Presley allows for the razor-sharp humor of tracks like the bro-country spoof “Country” to sit alongside acute desperation. None are more desperate than the opening track, “Dreams Don't Come True,” co-written with Presley's Pistol Annies counterparts. It starts with studio ambiance, like it's being played totally off the cuff, before the broken-hearted lyrics—all about missed opportunities and dreams deferred—presents the album's melancholy thesis statement. “I thought I'd change the world with three chords and the truth,” Preseley sings. “I'd be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs.”
It hasn't quite worked out that way for this particular Presley, who populates her album with female characters who've seen their hopes and wishes dashed. Yet Wrangled, a brave album from a country singer who's still finding herself, suggests that it's never too late to lift yourself up.