Review Summary: Rock, riffs, and rage.
It’s rare for a musician to first find success in his late thirties, but that’s exactly what happened to Sturgill Simpson. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
is what truly catapulted him into the limelight, and deservedly so; the semi-concept album revolving around the birth of his son was as musically captivating and adventurous as it was emotionally endearing. Although that record espoused an artful blend of country and good old fashioned rock n’ roll – especially the momentous closer ‘Call to Arms’ – we find Sound & Fury
relying less on those kinds of elaborate song structures and instead opting for a straightforward blues/psych-rock approach. On almost all of the tracks, Simpson’s vocals are layered – echoing with a studio makeover that allows his voice to sound ten times larger. Thus, the record has abandoned a great deal of the earthy, organic elements that made Sailor’s Guide
feel like a transcontinental expedition. However, the payoff is both satisfying and immediate. Sound & Fury
is a no-frills charge ahead that embodies the album’s namesake: a whole lot of rock, riffs, and rage. It may not be the life-changer that Sailor’s Guide
was, with the record’s marketable simplicity and sleek sheen casting some doubt upon its long-term appeal, but for what it lacks in genuine emotion it makes up for with attitude and sheer grit.
While most of Sound & Fury
feels like the best possible amalgamation of ZZ Top and The Black Keys (case-in-point being the lead single ‘Sing Along’, or the wailing, bluesy guitars of ‘A Good Look’) – the album does begin to breathe a little across the mid-to-latter portion. As Simpson ever so slightly loosens his vice-grip on the psychedelic/blues rock jugular, we witness spacey synths on ‘Best Clockmaker on Mars’, a melodic acoustic reprieve by way of ‘All Said and Done’, and a winding seven minute closer in ‘Fastest Horse In Town.’ The latter is particularly impressive, taking the “they just don’t make good rock anymore” stereotype personally whilst crafting an absolute fire breather that culminates in what is quite possibly Simpson’s most technically impressive guitar solo to date. It’s tracks like this that give Sound & Fury
the versatility it needs to avoid being pegged merely as “a rompin’ good time”, because while it definitely is exactly that at times, Simpson’s technical prowess shines through enough to provide an uncrackable foundation upon which to build all these blazing riffs and catchy melodies.
One thing that might get missed by the casual listener is just how angry
Simpson is. Sure, the curveball he throws us by abandoning the country music that made him famous – in favor of guns-blazin’ rock - isn’t the subtlest hint of discontent, but there’s cynicism woven into nearly every decision made here. A lot has also been written about his dissatisfaction with the state of the music industry, and his disdain for the fame brought on by his recent success, so perhaps everything going on in the world – as well as with him personally – just collided like a perfect storm of bitterness and sarcasm. On ‘Make Art Not Friends’, he sounds the alarm of pessimism: “Looking out the window at a world on fire, it's plain to see the end is near.” Even the album’s opening passage – in the otherwise instrumental ‘Ronin’ – he cycles through radio stations, all of which are condemning society from various angles: “Ladies and gentleman, there is an overwhelming body of evidence that supports a conspiracy where the glob—… / The problem with this country is, is consumption, we consume too much.” As the passage reaches its conclusion, you can hear his foot hitting the gas harder and harder, the engine revving as if to mirror his frustration. I think that’s an emotion we can all relate to right now – we’re inundated with politics that we’re sick and tired of hearing about, but that likewise still needs to be addressed. And despite our best efforts, our problems only seem to multiply and become more severe. Sound & Fury
feels an awful lot like Simpson trying to drown out all the noise – to burn it with fire, even if just for a single moment of goddamn peace.
Critics will invariably cite just how much of a departure Sound & Fury
is from Sailor’s Guide
– and while they’re not wrong aesthetically, it’s actually quite the logical emotional evolution. On the last album’s curtain call, Simpson’s exasperation had become palpable: “Bull*** on my TV, bull*** on my radio…Hollywood telling me how to be me, the bull***’s got to go.” This album is the sound of that fury reaching a fever pitch, picking up right where ‘Call to Arms’ left off. None of this is as nuanced or beautiful as Sailor’s Guide
, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a momentary pardon from the insanity of daily life. That’s as good of a reason as any to get down and dirty with Sound & Fury
– Simpson’s most straightforwardly enjoyable offering to date.