Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide To Earth
The resurgence of country music has been gaining traction in the UK for the last couple of years, while in the US country-pop has made it cool again. Now it’s cool again it needs a breakout star that harks back to the real roots. After 2014’s double whammy of High Top Mountain’s trad.country and the psychadelic sheen of Metamodern Sounds Of Country Music it sounded like there was a pretender to the throne: Sturgill Simpson.
After releasing those two records on his own independent label the 37 year old signed to Atlantic Records. Any doubts that might curb his creativity are quickly dismissed, though the light-touch psychedelia that was present previously is gone. His first two albums show an artist interested in moving forward and challenging himself, High Top Mountain was traditional guitar-led country but with an abandon, a pace, and an honesty that Nashville’s hit machine can’t get anywhere near. Metamodern Sounds… moved that on, creating dream-like musical landscapes to Simpson’s Kentucky vocals and lyrics that mix controversy and beauty in two lines: “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT they all changed the way I see / But love's the only thing that ever saved my life”.
And so to A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, where it could get tricky. Hype, hope, and the future of real country music rests on Simpson’s shoulders. How very Sturgill to go make country music’s To Pimp A Butterfly then. In fact all the talk of country music pigeon holes the album in a way that Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece never was. This is so far beyond country, we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore.
Behind the sheen of soul and 70s Stax style horn sections there's a theme too, one of fathers and their children. Of advice and wisdom. Of hope and the future. Contrast that to the sometimes downbeat thoughts of his first two albums and you have a radical refocusing. The first line of opener ‘Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)’ (“Hello my son / Welcome to Earth / You may not be my last / But you'll always be my first”) sets the tone lyrically and thematically. It also crushes expectations musically; segueing beautifully from Elvis style balladeering, where it's all about the voice, into Motown soul and all the funk that brings at the halfway point.
Therein lies the power of A Sailor's Guide To Earth, the way it moves seamlessly between styles and tempo, from the restrained country ballad ‘Breakers Roar’ into the rollicking father to son funk of ‘Keep It Between The Lines’ (Stay in school / Stay off the hard stuff / And keep between the lines”), with horn section, an organ, and slide guitar bridge, and on to the more straightforward MOR rock of ‘Sea Stories’.
How to follow that quartet then? Well, with a quite sublime version of Nirvana’s seminal ‘In Bloom’. It's been moulded and crafted into something very different, much the same as minor 80s song ‘The Promise’ was on his previous record. It really is a beautiful thing.
Despite that stylistic pick and mix it holds together perfectly, and that's due to the balance that Simpson had nailed; no one style dominates. The controlled aggression and submissive wailing guitar on ‘Brace For Impact (Live A Little)’, the breakneck addictive thrust of ‘Call To Arms’, the understated love shown in the simple, atmospherics of ‘Oh Sarah’, the story of a man missing his family.
Put simply, this is Sturgill Simpson's masterpiece. Wonderfully cohesive, lyrically emotional, musically dense. A perfect tribute to his son and the emotional pull of family.