Album Review: A Sailor's Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson
Excellent, Based on 13 Critics
Exclaim - 100 Based on rating 10/10
With the recent surge in popularity for "real" or "outlaw" country music, many have turned the focal point of discussion about the genre to authenticity. Does the artist check off all the correct boxes to be considered a "real country" artist, and not an interloper schilling bro-centric truck commercial abomination? Is bro-country providing logical sonic evolutions? Are one of these "right" and one "wrong"? I'll save you the time of reading any horrifyingly lengthy think pieces by saying it's a waste of time: pundits of all sides are unbearable and annoying, either frat boys clueless of hillbilly music history or gun-clutching good ol' boys who refuse to let anything drag them into the 21st century. People will claim that Sturgill Simpson's genre-elevating third album, A Sailor's Guide To Earth, is not country.
Siring a child into the world is never not a scary proposition. It just so happens country artist Sturgill Simpson did just that in 2014, the same year his conscious-raising breakout album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was released. For many a listener, Simpson was a spiritual seeker, a highbrow musical messiah sent to return balance to a bloated Nashville formula.
Johnny Cash once made a list of essential country songs for his daughter Rosanne to explore, which decades later became the basis of her 2009 album, The List. Sturgill Simpson skips the middleman with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, an album of songs that he mostly wrote for his son. The LP is Simpson’s third, following his 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
Brilliant and deeply personal album from Nashville’s brightest new star. Sturgill Simpson may be blessed with the golden tones of Merle Haggard or Marty Robbins, but he’s anything but a simple country throwback..
Sturgill Simpson's 2014 sophomore release, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, dragged "outlaw country" into modern times with acid-tongued clarity and a world-weary sense of humor. Its perspective was so refreshing that other like-minded albums came to be: Chris Stapleton enlisted Metamodern producer Dave Cobb to craft his own revivalist release Traveller, which won the 2016 Grammy for Best Country Album. While Metamodern Sounds of Country Music is certainly a record that invited imitation, it's darker and deeper than Stapleton's award winner or even Jason Isbell's most lauded recent solo albums (also produced by Cobb), a sometimes-nihilistic opus that proclaims things like “Ain't no point of getting out of bed if you ain't livin' the dream" and declares hallucinogens like DMT as lenses with which to see the truths of existence.
Sturgill Simpson has found a novel way to rebut all the claims that he is the future of Nashville. His third album takes a sharp turn away from the questing, metaphysical country of his second record, bringing on board the Dap-Kings to transform his songs into hard-hitting country soul. Simpson spends much of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth pondering his responsibilities to his young son, but not in a cloying way.
"I hope you don't grow up believing that you have to be a puppet to be a man." That's Sturgill Simpson, former Navy man, singing to his young son on "Call to Arms," an indictment of America's warmongering, media-stupefied culture that ends his spectacular mic drop of a third LP. The song storms through a spangled rave-up worthy of Elvis Presley's TCB band, with verses that suggest Waylon Jennings on a hip-hop kick. "Wearing that Kim Jong-il hat while your grandma's selling pills stat/Meanwhile, I'm wearing my 'can't pay my fucking bills' hat," Simpson rants, profiling a nation still rattling swords while its citizens – vets included – get hung out to dry.
Back when he released High Top Mountain in 2013, the retro sensibilities of Sturgill Simpson seemed to be rooted solely in outlaw country: he swaggered like the second coming of Waylon Jennings, a man on a mission to restore muscle and drama to country music. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, his 2014 sophomore set, was a curve ball revealing just how unorthodox his rulebook was. After nearly two decades of alternative country doubling down on po-faced authenticity where simpler was better, Simpson embraced indulgence, pushing new wave, psychedelia, and digital-age saturation, all in an attempt to add the cosmic back into American music.
Want a surefire way to ruin a night at the symphony? Try sucking up every available moment before the conductor raises his baton unsuccessfully convincing a stubborn rockist boyfriend that Sturgill Simpson isn’t a (cough, cough) country artist. Yes, the 37-year-old Nashville-by-way-of-Kentucky transplant possesses a deep-throated drawl easily bouncing between whimsy and danger — the kind that makes you weak in the knees and prone to hasty decisions. And, yes, pedal steel guitar oozes into every crevice of his material like chocolate syrup showing a bowl of vanilla ice cream who’s boss.
At age 37 and only three records into his career, Sturgill Simpson carries with him a sack of lore. He’s the guy who wrote 400 emails to music insiders in Nashville trying to get his foot in the door, the first country singer to sing about taking DMT, and maybe, most perniciously, the outsider who makes country music for people who don’t like country music. It’s possible to peg Simpson as an agent of subversion, the “alt” to mainstream country, but it doesn’t do him full justice.
Since the days of the wayfaring bards, the touring life has largely been coded male. But not all itinerants enjoy artificial irresponsibility. Breakout country star Sturgill Simpson’s third album is not all about the conflicts of a male life in motion, but much of it deals with the pull of home, long experienced by sailors, soldiers and musicians.
DESPITE HOW HARD it may be to believe, Sturgill Simpson actually has a life extracurricular of his hard-hitting, no-bullshit reputation as country music’s most unique artist. He has a wife and a son, and apparently, leaving them to tour was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. “I feel like all this is happening,” Simpson admitted during a podcast interview with Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett.
Sturgill Simpson debuted with an old-school country blast in 2013, and then injected psychedelica and opaque metaphysics into that base with “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. ” Now, the birth of Simpson’s son and the separation entailed by a touring musician have occasioned “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. ” A song cycle in the form of a letter to his son, the set spans wonder and remorse, rumination and rage, autobiographical recountings and fatherly advice by turns mundane (“stay in school“) and cosmic (“a universal heart, glowing, flowing all around you“).