In the weeks since Sturgill Simpson gave his first glimpse of his new album, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, much has been made about the country star's change of direction. Ordained by many as the savior of country music after his 2014 breakout, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the Kentucky native's newly prominent rock influence was hard to ignore. But as A Sailor's Guide drops this week, one thing is clear: Simpson is doing what he's always done.
Ideologically, musically and artistically, this album is a massive step forward, as Simpson evolves from a messenger preaching the psychedelic gospel into a full-fledged philosopher. The nautical influence is obvious, ranging from the swishing sound of the tide that introduces the album to the vivid story arc that maps the young polliwog’s journey across the earth. The subject matter, though, is entirely directed at Simpson’s own inner turmoil as a touring artist. His success, long-overdue and hard-fought, has come with a price: being on the road and away from his first-born son and wife.
The first single, “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)” muddied the waters about what was to come from Simpson, the man who many said would save country music. As Simpson himself has said, as soon as his Kentucky twang hits the mic, there’s no disputing the country influence. But the rest of the track, a throbbing blues-rock number with a twinge of Lynyrd Skynyrd, is markedly different from the rest of his hard-country oeuvre.
The closest approximation to Simpson’s past work is “Oh Sarah,” which in some senses recalls the cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise.” It burns slowly, and is perhaps Simpson’s best vocal performance on the album. It is a remarkable and wrenching love song, one that is plainly demonstrative of the difficulty that Simpson feels in leaving his family to perform his music. In the wrong hands, this kind of subject matter can be overwrought and cheesy. Here, it is charming and earnest enough to draw a tear to the most cynical eye.
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“Sea Stories,” a brilliantly written track dosed with Papaw’s wisdom, is also classic Simpson. Steel guitar and classic country chord progressions meet with the tall tales of a sailor’s journey across the world (with the shellbacks to prove 'em). It's the perfect formula for a good country song. Then, seamlessly, the track transitions into Simpson’s cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” and the switch is flipped.
Simpson’s interpretation of “In Bloom” is the most subtly intellectual track on the album, without a doubt. “That song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager,” he said in a Rolling Stone interview. “I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn't have to be tough or cold to be a man.”
This nuanced view of masculinity stands in such stark contrast to the pervasive toxic masculinity that birthed “bro-country” that it is striking. If Simpson’s album is intended to be a manual for his young son — or any young boy, really — it bodes well for that kid’s future. More than that, it is a beautiful expression of emotion and vulnerability that is both refreshing and rare.
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Where the formula really changes, though, is with the addition of the Dap Kings. Their expert horn playing lends an irresistible dose of funkiness to this album, exemplified on tracks like “Keep It Between the Lines.” The pulsing bassline of “Brace for Impact” was just a taste of what was to come in that respect, and the results are pure joy. As much as it would’ve been great to listen to 10 more honky-tonk tracks from Simpson, this evolution is decidedly worthy.
And perhaps better. It's crucial to note here, too, that this record was self-produced. Before, Simpson was linked up with Dave Cobb, who deserves at least some of the credit for Metamodern’s impeccable sound. This album is a bit fuzzier, a little grungier in parts, but certainly not any worse sonically. The psychedelic elements remain intact, and still somehow feel entirely integrated into the sound, not dragged over from the last record to suit the fans.
The album closes with "Call to Arms," an anti-war jaunt that is also wildly different from the jingoistic, boot-in-your-ass bullshit that so many other country artists are prone to. Simpson's mentions of the horrors of drone war and the idea that the U.S. is still occupying Afghanistan to control the heroin trade add up to country's best protest song of well, maybe ever. The fact that he considers this an important piece of advice for his son is just icing on the left-wing cake.
Rich storytelling, good instrumentation, good steel guitar — it’s all there, just maybe not as much as you might have liked. That convergence of Simpson’s strong-headed artistic style and country’s most vaunted tenets is ultimately what makes this record such an artistic success. He just did it on his own terms, in his own way and forged on with a sound that was uniquely his own. Which is why everyone loved Simpson in the first place.