Review Summary: Life is but a dream...
With the release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
in 2014, Sturgill Simpson alienated himself from the realm of country music with a record that stretched the formalities of the genre to unforeseen heights. Universally acclaimed for the lengths of which the record went in capturing the basic essence of what made country music a staple of suburban life and deconstructing the soundscape with the introduction of higher-regarded genres such as psychedelia and blues; Metamodern marked Sturgill Simpson as a ray of light in the eyes of critics. As an edge in a genre scrutinized for the lack thereof, some critics even went as far as calling Simpson a “savior for country music,” showing that there was still room in a suffocating genre for artists who moved against the grain.
closing track, It Ain’t All Flowers
, was ambiguous in its backmask heavy wall of psychedelic guitars and vocals. As a massive deviation from the album’s country/blues roots, it seemed to only raise one question through the haze of glitchy vocal chops: Where would Sturgill go next" Or better yet, where could Sturgill go next after touching base with every aspect in the realm of country music and then some" A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
is Sturgill’s long-awaited response to cautious spectators with the simplest of answers: Wherever the hell I want, thank you very much! With the introduction of a newborn son and rapidly growing fame, Sturgill finds his heart at sea for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
, an album that highlights the daring trek through the dangerous oceans of life. The album is a present not only to fans, but a life lesson packaged behind beautiful compositions for his own son, who Sturgill roots all of the album's themes as his centerpoint.
Much like the overwhelming waves depicted on the cover, the album goes just about anywhere it damn well pleases in often extraordinary fashions. Welcome to Earth
finds Sturgill Simpson taking the helm of the ship through the ambience of synths and ship bells before dropping off into leisurely piano intro. Strings and the slightest twang of a guitar follows him through lines of overwhelming joy and childlike wonder with the idea of being a father. Its a genuinely touching moment, powered by the gradually building soundscape of orchestra. Then suddenly, in an unexpected twist, Sturgill Simpson channels his inner Marvin Gaye (a cited influence) to finish the track off in a spectacular upbeat barrage of heavily grooved horns and synthetic keys.
A Sailor’s Guide carries a mixture of fun, up-beat ‘father-to-son’ life lessons such as tracks like Keep It Between the Lines
and Call to Arms
and slower, more introspective delves into the feelings surrounding his rise to fame on Breakers Roar
and Oh Sarah
. The writing is very personal, each track heavily rooted in “sailor/sea” metaphors around vivid imagery that gives the album a more engaging edge. Breakers Roar
, the track immediately after Welcome to Earth
, is a slower, more delicate track - traditional in country formality with slight violin tinging the slow, plodding atmosphere of the track. Its heavy handed in the emotional department, as Sturgill croons over the distant feeling of going out to the “deep dark seas” of fame.
Keep it Between the Lines
is a tongue-in-cheek life lesson for Strugill’s son on how to have a successful life. Incredibly cheesy with lines such as “don’t turn mailboxes into baseballs”
and “motoroil is motoroil, just keep the engine clean”
, the immediate acknowledgement of Sturgill’s hypocrisy with each of these important life lessons in the following verses give it a very genuine dad-like charm that could only be further maximized with the inclusion of puns. The track’s instrumentals are busy here, horns and guitar strings build a thick atmosphere under dabs of keys and synths and a very wonky guitar solo. Brace for Impact
and All Around You
both trod about with heavy, pounding drumbeat and horns with the former punching with a psychedelic guitar solo reminiscent of Metamodern
and the latter including a smooth entourage of horns reminiscent of early jazz through Sturgill’s heavily captivating words of “eternal love”.
Call to Arms
concludes the album with a fast, bluegrass-esque track with fast bass plodding, quick percussion, horns, and a guitar riff that bounces off of Sturgill’s loud energy. Much like It Ain’t All Flowers
from before, this track continues the trend of ambiguity on the future of Simpson’s career. Unfortunate as it is, with an album as concise, personal, and energizing as this; Sturgill’s cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom
at the halfway point of the album stumbles and drops the energy the record had built up before it. His odd approach to note holding becomes grating between each verse and despite the latter half of the track picking things back up with a loud conclusion of grandeur; the damage is already done.
In the end, however, Sturgill delivers strong with a follow-up album that in many ways outshines the two before it in traditional country colliding with groovy, Marvin Gaye-inspired composition. His attention to imagery keeps things refreshing and heart-warming for the more personal themes of each track, cementing the album as another outstanding inclusion to his promising career. While Sturgill’s next step will remain unknown, for as hard to tell as it is, there is no doubt that like before Sturgill will manage to deliver with concepts keeping things fresh just as he did before here. May the passage through the dark waves of the night break into the warm light of day.