Chance took Esther Rose to New Mexico. Around the time she released her third album, 2021’s How Many Times, she found herself in line at a coffee shop in Taos and, on a whim, asked if they were hiring. She got the job, packed up her stuff back in Louisiana, and made the long drive west. If she hadn’t become a barista in the Land of Enchantment, who knows where she might have ended up? Originally from Columbiaville, Michigan, and more recently associated with the lively country scene in New Orleans, Rose barely needs a reason to roam, much less a final destination. Her new album, Safe to Run, is a chronicle of her wanderings. “I don’t have a plan, it’s true,” she sings on “New Magic II,” her guitar tracing the highway lines to nowhere in particular. “Just to spend a little time with you/And maybe write a song or two.”
Creativity and constant motion are intertwined in Rose’s music. Full of tactile details and poetic turns of phrase, the songs on Safe to Run have the feel of road-trip musings, as though she were recording stray thoughts from an all-day drive. She worries over uncomfortable memories, ponders big philosophical questions, and puzzles over life dilemmas in songs that grow more complicated with each line. On “Chet Baker,” Rose reminisces about her wild past—those long nights in bars and longer days with frayed edges. But embarrassment and concern (“Twenty-three/Uh-huh, save me,” she sings with an palpable roll of her eyes) give way to a more charitable acceptance of her younger, more reckless self (“Now we’re pretty good”), and her tone telegraphs relief that those experiences could yield a song as buoyant as this.
Like Hurray for the Riff Raff, the Deslondes, and Silver Synthetic—three other New Orleans acts whose members contribute to Safe to Run—Rose remains grounded in country music even as she roams farther afield. Opener “Stay” drips with heavy pedal steel, and “Dream Girl” rewrites generations of country tunes about women who leave small towns for the glamor of Hollywood. Think Johnny Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” or Vern Stovall’s “Long Black Limousine” or even Don Williams’ “If Hollywood Don’t Need You.” But Rose writes a happy—and gently subversive—ending for her character. There’s no man shaming her back where she came from, and she doesn’t return humbled or dead.
For Rose, country music is like home, which means it’s as much a place to leave as a place to stay. Especially on its second half, Safe to Run downplays the twang of her previous albums and subtly turns more pop, peppering her songs with chamber strings, drum loops, and chiming ’90s guitar. There’s nothing quite as radical as anything on the 2021 EP How Many More Times, which collected covers of Rose’s songs by Stef Chura, Shamir, Anjimile, and others. But perhaps that release gave her license to roam a little further from familiar sounds, especially in the way she uses her voice. She’s developed a sly trick of speaking a word right in the middle of a line, as though arching an eyebrow or casting a side-eye. “I’ve got two minds about you, I confess,” she tells a lover on “Spider,” then adds, “Now get undressed.” She makes the line sound both funny and sad; it’s as though she’s willing to let one mind override the other, if only for a night.
Rose has two minds about a lot of stuff on Safe to Run, including the whole notion of running. Wandering can be complicated: a natural response to a deep itch in the soul, but also a fossil-fuel extravagance. The title track—which may be Rose’s best and thorniest composition—opens as another song about travel, but gradually expands its scope to consider the environmental impact of all those miles. Fittingly, it’s a duet with Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra, whose own albums juggle the personal and the public so well. “Man, to be alive seems we just consume/Everything in sight becoming fuel,” Rose sings, knowing there’s no safe place to run and no safe way to get there. She never pretends to reconcile that contradiction, but lets it hang in the air among the halting guitar and precarious harmonies. It sounds like it takes everything she has just to keep it between the ditches.
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