Review Summary: Hello, my son: welcome to earth
I've been told you measure a man, by how much he loves
And holding you is the greatest love I've ever known
When I thought I understood A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
, I didn’t. Isn’t that how all the best albums begin? My first impression of this progressive country masterwork is that it is needlessly reckless. One moment Sturgill is channeling his inner Marvin Gaye, the next he’s covering Nirvana. Then he’s shredding away during a psychedelic outro. Yep, A Sailor’s Guide
is about as predictable as the open water – or life – and yes, maybe that’s the point. On an album brimming with love, Sturgill pens nine thoughtful songs as an ode to his newborn son which are intended to act just as the title suggests. It steers his son away from wrongdoing, teaches life lessons, and apologizes for the mess he will be inheriting in the process. Literally, it’s a guide to life.
These are all sentiments that I admired from the outside looking in, until I found myself holding my own newborn son. For those of you who hope to become a father someday, I can tell you that all the clichés about it “changing your views on life” are unequivocally accurate. The second I laid eyes on that helpless little being blinking back at me, I was instantly in love and nothing else mattered. The idea of being able to present him with a gift as meaningful as music, that he could look back upon years from now even if I should pass away unexpectedly, sends a shiver up my spine. I’m not a musician in the slightest, so I have to live vicariously through Sturgill Simpson’s art, and A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
is everything I’d say if I could.
‘Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)’ embodies the joys and fears of that very first moment when your child arrives. There’s a swell of pure, tangible love when Simpson belts out, atop a gentle piano ballad intro, “Hello, my son…welcome to earth / You may not be my last, but you'll always be my first…wish I'd done this ten years ago, but how could I know, how could I know / That the answer was so easy.” I look back at my own life decisions and lament my intrinsic need to always be responsible. Initially, that meant being married. Then it meant being financially stable. After that, it meant securing a house for the child to grow up in – not just a tiny one bedroom apartment. I always found a reason to put off fatherhood, and it had little to do with needing to be prepared – I was just terrified
of being a dad. However, I can tell you that it’s all worth it. The first minute that I held my son was simultaneously the most joyful and terrifying sixty seconds of my life, but looking back, my only regret is not having him sooner. I wish I had done it years ago as well, because that’s time I’ll never be able to recuperate. Again, so much of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
is rich in context – and those are verses that I never fully appreciated until I was in Sturgill’s shoes. The song turns on a dime halfway through, launching into the aforementioned Marvin Gaye reminiscent soul rocker – where Simpson addresses sadder topics like how much it pains him to leave his child in order to support the family by touring: “If sometimes daddy has to go away, well please don't think it means I don't love you…When I get home it breaks my heart, seeing how much you've grown all on your own.”
Whereas the opener is soulfully experimental country-rock at its finest, ‘Breakers Roar’ plunges listeners into the lushest of oceanic backdrops. Strings swell and ache in gorgeous entanglement, as the tropical sway makes you feel lost at sea. It’s a simple song for sure – there’s no unexpected twists like we witness in the sonically adventurous opener – but it immediately absorbs your imagination and transports you. It possesses such a sublime aura, and when I listen to it I find myself drifting off…my muscles relaxing and my mind gently winding down. Simpson’s smooth serenade weaves in and out of the music like light beaming through the depths of the ocean; I’d say it’s enough to put you to sleep but it’s not boring at all, it’s just mesmerizingly beautiful. The stripped-bare canvas puts the onus on Simpson’s vocals, but he rises to the challenge by delivering what might be considered the best song on the record. Additionally, he pairs it with some of his simplest and most warmest counsel: “Open up your heart and you'll find love all around.” If there were a challenge to write a single sentence, generation-spanning piece of advice, that would be a clear winner.
‘Keep It Between the Lines’ is one of Sturgill’s most heartfelt songs, as he provides some standard advice like “motor oil is motor oil, just keep the engine clean” and “stay in school, stay off the hard stuff and keep between the lines”, but then also delves into some pointedly personal details as well such as “don't get busted selling at seventeen.” As the song progresses, swinging to its jazzy trumpets and breezy electric guitars, the picture begins to take shape: Sturgill is listing things he’s done wrong and asking his son not to repeat his mistakes. It doesn’t really hit home until he sings, “Do as I say, don't do as I've done / It don't have to be like a father, like his son.” I think that as a parent – especially fathers, who tend to be very prideful about their past – it seems natural to want to put on a front. After all, it’s natural to want your child to emulate only your best traits so that they can succeed where you’ve failed. That’s where Simpson really shows his wisdom, putting his mistakes to paper and admitting that he isn’t perfect. Rather than willing his son to aspire to unrealistic expectations, he merely says “here’s where I fell short, try to do better than I did.” One of my favorite lines from the entire song is when he imparts yet another single-sentence of keen insight: “most thoughts deserve about two or three more.”
It may be a seldom known fact to casual Sturgill fans, but he briefly served in the US navy before getting kicked out for drug use – which can be deduced from his not-so-subtle allusions to “getting high” and “flying high” from ‘Sea Stories’. This track covers a lot of ground in three minutes, highlighting his worldwide travels from Thailand to Tokyo to Singapore (all amid one of the album’s more impressive guitar solos, I might add), eventually spouting off, “seen damn near the whole damn world.” At first the point of the song might prove to be elusive, as it merely sounds like a resume of the places he’s been and an account of his struggles after getting discharged, but the closing couplet (“flying high beats dying for lies, In a politician's war”) provides a more meaningful backdrop to his rambling “sea stories.” In essence, these lines state that although he regrets getting kicked out of the navy for his poor judgment, he is also glad that he no longer needed to put his life on the line for an Iraq war that was built upon unsubstantiated claims. It’s not the last time that Simpson delves into the political sphere, which proves to hold at least some weight in what he wants to convey to his son. In a world where politics have invaded every aspect of our lives – from school to television to social media – it makes little sense for Simpson to try to hide his views. With ‘Sea Stories’, he cracks that door open. Simpson does eventually blow the door off its hinges, but we need to wait until the final song for that.
Sturgill maintains an acute awareness of the record’s theme throughout A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
, and viewing the experience as a “walk through life” helps explain why the Nirvana cover ‘In Bloom’ can be found just about halfway through. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone Country, Simpson divulged the true motivation behind its inclusion: “I wanted a song on the album to capture that awkward stage in every young boy’s life where they are searching for their place in the world. One night while discussing the album with my wife, she asked, ‘Well, what were you listening to when you were 13?’ I remember in seventh or eighth grade, when Nevermind
dropped, it was like a bomb went off in my bedroom. For me, that song has always summed up what it means to be a teenager, and I think it tells a young boy that he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man.” The most notable adjustment to the original version, besides its adaptation to an acoustic ballad, is the addition of the words “to love someone” at the end of the verse “but he don't know what it means.” This actually occurred inadvertently, as Simpson sang it the way he remembered it and then had to request special permission from the Cobain estate to release it that way. In the broader context of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
, however, it couldn’t have been a more fitting coincidence. ‘In Bloom’ still serves as a song about the chaos and confusion of young adulthood, but the warmth that emanates from its acoustics and mistakenly altered lyrics helps frame it in such a way that it befits Sturgill Simpson’s overarching mission statement.
If you’re in this for the music and not the sappy backstory, then I’ve failed you to this point – but allow me to extend an olive branch in the form of “Brace for Impact (Live A Little)”, which is damn highlight reel of Sturgill’s awe-inspiring talents. Atop a driving bassline and infectious rhythm, Simpson’s trademark southern twang introduces the record’s existentialism through its chorus, “so go and live a little, bone turns brittle and skin withers before your eyes / make sure you give a little, before you go to the great unknown in the sky.” The song’s second half is where you’ll find yourself constantly returning, though, with a psych-country breakdown that spans well over two minutes. What begins as a wavering electric guitar riff traveling through various pitches evolves into an all-out stomper, occasionally pausing the riffs to allow the beats a chance to shine, all while injecting synths and fuzzy reverb/feedback to shroud the experience in a haze that wouldn’t sound of place on a Norman Greenbaum hit. It’s an absolute trip, and the technical/instrumental centerpiece of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
that would also prove to foreshadow the psych-rock direction taken by the album’s successor, Sound & Fury
The next two songs take a decidedly gentler tone, with ‘All Around You’ serving as a more obvious return to theme and ‘Oh Sarah’ marking a gorgeous ode to his wife. The former is a spiritual song that isn’t clear about Simpson’s religious beliefs, but he sings of “a universal heart – glowing, flowing, all around you” from which he urges his son to take comfort and peace. He also speaks of his eventual demise, promising his son – in what feels like A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
’s conceptual epilogue – “just know in your heart that we're always together, and long after I'm gone I'll still be around / 'cause our bond is eternal, and so is love.” It’s a touching moment whose heart-mimicking drums bleed effortlessly into ‘Oh Sarah’, where Simpson credits his wife as a buoying force in his life: “there's only one thing girl I know is real…It's the love that I feel in your arms / It's the glow you wear around you like a charm / It's the tender in your eyes that keeps me safe and warm at night, from this life.” This gorgeous, string-laden romantic ballad feels like an ideal off-theme inclusion, because it shows his son how he feels about his mother – even if he’s not around (touring, or god forbid death) to show it. The way in which he credits his wife for holding the family together while offering such beautiful poetry about her strength and will says a lot about both Sarah and Sturgill. At some point, whenever his son listens to this song on any sort of meaningful level, there will be no doubt just how he feels about her – and that’s a beautiful essence to be able to capture and pass on.
Sturgill ties a neat little bow on all of his heart-warming sentiments early, in part so that he can sound off on the corrupt actions of the US military and media alike. It’s a strange plot twist, but could perhaps be taken as a warning to his son: don’t be a puppet for American politicians. The genre tangibly shifts from country to raucous, jazzy rock n’ roll as he pummels multiple aspects of his society: “I done Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, North Korea tell me where does it end / Well the bodies keep piling up with every day”; “Well nobody’s looking up to care about a drone, all too busy looking down at our phone”; “They serve up distractions and we eat them with fries, until the bombs fall out of our fucking skies”; “Bullshit on my TV, bullshit on my radio / Hollywood telling me how to be me, the bullshit’s got to go.” The song exits on a loud and boisterous note, with a series of trumpets and other jazz horns discordantly clashing against rowdy drums. Simpson’s parting words to his son are not ones of stereotypical “dad advice”, but rather, “Well son I hope you don’t grow up, believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man.” And with that, the pages to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
is one of those rare concept albums that it isn’t overly showy or bombastic, yet it’s able to move the listener while consistently executing its theme. It’s not the sort of thing you commonly witness in any genre, let alone country – but then again, this is in a class of its own. Simpson blends various aspects of country, psychedelic rock, and soul/funk to form what some may coin as progressive-country (if for no other reason because it pushes the boundaries of the genre so ardently). I actively disliked country music until I heard A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
, and it practically singlehandedly opened my eyes to what the genre is capable of. It’s the perfect gateway album for country naysayers; a reason to give the genre’s modern incarnation another chance. There are precious few albums that I physically purchase anymore, but when I do, I physically display them in my music-cave. This is one of those albums worth owning, taking pride in, and passing down to the next generation.
I may not be much of a musician (okay, not one at all), but that’s part of the reason I put so much stock in A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
. It’s what I could tell my son through music, if I had the god-given talent to. Even when I thought I had this record all figured out, it continued to reveal its layers on both a sonic and lyrical plane. Hell, I’m still discovering little details about it that make me love it even more. The longer I’m a dad, spinning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
with my son learning how to walk in the same room, the more it grows with the both of us. It’s ingrained in my blood now, the musical component to the elation and fears of being a father. The older you get, the more difficult it is to relate to music. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
means more to me than the first emo-rock record I heard as a teenager, or the first indie-folk album I heard as a twenty-something. It’s the soundtrack to this new chapter in my life, and if it’s the last album that I ever fall head-over-heels for, I think I’m okay with that.