Release Date: May 13, 2014
Record label: Thirty Tigers
Genre(s): Country, Pop/Rock
With the exception of a few artists, modern country has taken a hard left turn for the worse over the past two decades. Ask some people, and they might even say country’s become a shell of its former self. Sturgill Simpson is not one of those people—mostly because he doesn’t seem to care what is happening within the confines of the country music world.
In an effort to bring Simpson’s UK releases in line with what’s available in his US homeland, this is the second Sturgill album to surface in Blighty this year. But whereas its predecessor, High Top Mountain, was a sprightly curtain-raiser showcasing the singer’s love for country classicism, Metamodern… is arguably a concept piece; more analyst’s couch than honky tonk barstool. The album’s title clearly borrows from a landmark collection by Ray Charles, but the musical touchstones are closer to Jimmy Webb or Kris Kristofferson; certainly the psychedelic imagery of the opening Turtles All The Way Down hints at Webb’s more cosmic writing that he’d keep for himself rather than tout to others.
Sturgill Simpson is helping to rewrite the definition of authenticity in country music. Today, if you have a boozy baritone and kind of sound like Waylon, you’re expected to sing about the good old days and being an outlaw, which, in its own way, is becoming about as much of a ploy and gimmick as Luke Bryan singing about drinking on some beach. (See Eric Church).
Sturgill Simpson won many fans with his 2013 debut album, High Top Mountain. It is unapologetic in its evocation of '70s outlaw country. For his sophomore date, he and his band entered a Nashville studio with producer/engineer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell), and cut Metamodern Sounds in Country Music live-to-tape in four days. These songs and their production values, though immediately reconizable, are more varied and textured than those of his debut--there's no pedal steel here for one thing.
Apart from its clever Ray Charles-reference title, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, the second album from singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson, is a traditionalist statement through and through. As a singer, Simpson is a walking dictionary of classic male country vocalists. He is an expressive vocalist that can conjure the aching pain of George Jones, the deep melodrama of Charlie Rich, or the subversive grit of Merle Haggard on the turn of a phrase.
Sturgill Simpson saw Jesus juggle flames and met the devil in Seattle, or so he sings on “Turtles All the Way Down”, the opening track on his second solo album. Just when you think he’s slinging the same Biblical imagery Johnny Cash foretold on “The Man Comes Around”, Simpson adds that he “Met Buddha yet another time/ And he showed me a glowing light within. ” Rather than parrot the same Christian ideology that most country musicians consider integral to the genre, this Kentucky-born singer-songwriter is a quester, intrigued by the metaphysics of spiritual experience and wondering aloud if the Bible and a handful of 'shrooms will lead you to the same religious epiphany.
Today's country music is already plenty meta – how many songs about playing country radio can country radio play? – but with his new LP, Kentucky's Sturgill Simpson is taking it metamodern. So, uh, what does that mean, exactly? Picture what Waylon would have sounded like if he had taken Willie's drugs: This is a record that is equal parts haunted, tender and trippy. Where closer "It Ain't All Flowers" ends with two minutes of reversed tape, the Seventies Elvis-esque opener "Turtles All the Way Down" foregrounds a conversation with God in which the big man tells him, "My son, it's all been done/Go and try and have some fun." Not bad advice, that.
Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top Mountain) Dwight Yoakam on LSD? Actually, that rippling tenor belongs to former Sunday Valley frontman Sturgill Simpson, pondering a mental gateway, "Where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain" on lysergic opener "Turtles All the Way Down. " For his second solo LP, the rising rural talent turns his third eye to existential contemplation grounded enough on "Living the Dream" to yield a line like, "I don't need to change my strings 'cause the dirt don't hurt the way I sing. " Rocky road ode "Long White Line" should follow "I've Always Been Crazy" on Waylon Jennings' Greatest Hits.
Damned if this sophomore set by country crooner Sturgill Simpson doesn’t sound like an audio postcard all the way from Luckenbach, Texas. Or at least that’s what Simpson would have us believe, given his rugged delivery and an assertive mix of grit and swagger. Coming quickly on the heels of High Top Mountain, his well-received debut, Simpson wastes no time in establishing his debt to Cash, Kris, Waylon and others of that outlaw ilk.