By Rob Dickens.
Sturgill Simpson’s Guide to Virtuosity.
There are three performers who are changing the face of country music.
Not the Big Commercial ‘beers, hats and trucks’ Country – but the alt. and outlaw country movement.
Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson are redefining and elevating not only a critical music genre but the way that Nashville is perceived. Along with these three ground-breaking artists, the Americana Music Association continues to re-cast Music City with its all-embracing reach. If you are in any doubt, this year’s Americana Awards feature soul and blues A-graders Leon Bridges, Bonnie Raitt, Alabama Shakes and Tedeschi Trucks Band. In the past couple of years, disparate artists such as Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Keb Mo and Loretta Lynn have all been recognised under the Americana umbrella.
Sturgill Simpson is in the vanguard of this new frontier and his career trajectory continues to soar. His first release – 2013’s Big Top Mountain was an impressive collection of alt. country revisions and his follow-up, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014) made everyone sit up and take notice – complex arrangements, growling lyrics and psychedelic influences combined for a critical and commercial success.
The new Simpson album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic Records) is another gear shift, as if he does not want to get us (or himself) too settled.
The opening track ‘Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)’ is a tender love song for his first-born son, with a quieter introduction before an emotional crescendo and stretched regret about the time spent away from him. The soulful horns from The Dap-Kings adds great depth here. ‘Breakers Roar’ (“keep pulling me farther from shore”) is a slow ballad featuring Dan Dugmore‘s poignant pedal steel, while ‘Keep It Between The Lines’ features pointed and direct advice about avoiding numerous pitfalls and staying out of trouble. The wizardry of Simpson’s regular guitarist Luar Joamets shines like a beacon and The Dap-Kings’ muscular horns add a great groove. There’s a quick segue into ‘Sea Stories’, a descriptive nautical yarn about going from port to port “seeing damn near the whole damn world from the inside of a bar”. Yet, despite the ups and downs of the seafarer’s life, it “beats dying for lies in a politician’s war”.
As has been his custom to date, the new release features a cover – Kurt Cobain’s ‘In Bloom’ which builds slowly into a wall of brass, with Simpson adding fresh insight to this Nirvana classic. ‘Brace for Impact (Live a Little)’ is an epic. While well over 5 minutes long, it only has two verses and a chorus. But what it lacks in lyrics, it makes up for with a driving rock groove, embellished with an irresistible hard keyboard lick and an outro of subtlety and grace, as if all the players are jamming live.
‘All Around You’ recalls the best Stax soul and ‘Oh Sarah’ has cellos sounding both ominous and beautiful within a telling love song of devotion. ‘Call To Arms’ closes off proceedings as bagpipes give way to a quick rock shuffle and strident anti-war sentiment, with a blistering and escalating slide guitar. By the end, there’s a layer of horns, adding amazingly further to this all-in and inspired arrangement (which are a feature of the entire record). It flies, it spits, “the bullshit’s got to gooooo!!”
As well as penning all eight original songs and producing the record, Simpson co-arranged the horns, plays acoustic, twelve string guitars and moot synthesizer.
Simpson’s relationship with country music is more tenuous by the record, such is his quest for diversity and boldness. His stature as one of the brightest singer/songwriter/performers with an intensity and attitude continue to grow even further.
One of the albums of the year so far!