Sturgill Simpson–A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

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Sturgill Simpson is a country artist.  I don’t like country music.  Some label him “alt-country,” so perhaps that creates a crease I can slide into without making myself a hypocrite.    That label is due perhaps to his nerve in abandoning today’s corporate paint-by-the-numbers formulas to reimagine country music from its classic 1960’s sound, for which he was lauded in his 2014 CD, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

From this artist comes the following quote, in an interview with Rolling Stone:  "All I'm really interested in musically is trying to make concept albums," Simpson said. "Serving a larger sum than the parts. I just can't sit down and write three verses and a chorus and a bridge anymore. I just don't find it inspiring."

Huh.  A country artist saying he’s going to make a concept album, until now the conceit of progressive rock bands worldwide.  Okay.  I’m curious.

Sturgill reflected on letter from his grandfather to his grandmother and newborn son, written while serving in the Pacific in WWII.  He said he learned more about his grandfather in the several pages than he would have spending time talking with him.  Sturgill, auntitled-1 Navy veteran himself, applied that notion to the travel demands of an entertainer’s life and his own newborn son, thus the concept became postcards, in a sense, telling his son the things that mattered to him now.  Given the nautical heritage, the title A Sailor’s Guide to Earth makes some sense, and he works the theme into several songs.

“Welcome to Earth” is the apology song for being away.  “Breakers Roar” is about finding hope when things are working against.   “Keep it Between the Lines” is a “Do as I say, not as I do” advice piece.  “Sea Stories,” the most overtly “country” song (agh!), is a travelogue of sights and regrets – a “not as I do” allegory. 

Following that is an imaginative interpretation of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” a song for a teenage son and a song favored by the artist when he was one.  To my ear, it’s about kids’ inward focus without yet contemplating the greater issues in life.  To fill the gap, Simpson steps up to the God question in “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”:

Someday you’ll wake up and this life will be over
Every party must break up for burdens to shoulder
We're all dying to live and living to die
No matter what you believeuntitled-2
And all of us cry for the ones we must leave

So go and live a little
Bone turns brittle and skin weathers before your eyes
Make sure you give a little
Before you go to that great unknown in the sky

Some will beg for forgiveness from someone above
For something they did to someone they love
Some scream like a baby and some go out crying
Some bid the world goodbye and welcome the dying.

Wait a second, where’s the lyric about the pickup truck, a lover scorned or a patriotic hell yeah?  Sturgill’s lyrics are as well constructed throughout.  I guess a concept album will do that.

He touches the metaphysical a little more directly in “All Around You:”

But just know in your heart that we’re always together
And long after I’m gone I’ll still be around
Because our bond is eternal and so is love
God is inside you, all around, and up above
Showing you the way

“Oh Sarah” is, as the title suggests, probably the Cliff Notes version of his grandfather’s letter.  War (and touring) are heluntitled-3l, but love will find its way home.   “Call to Arms” closes the album, a country-rocker-protest song about political, media, and Hollywood agendas that tell a person who they should be.  I’d prefer “Oh Sarah” as the final point rather than a middle finger, but it still works.

I’ve read elsewhere that this CD upends expectations and previous labels, blessing him now with a “Southern soul” tag.  That’s likely due to the frequent and inspired use of the Dap-Kings, a supporting band for Sharon Jones that is very much in the funk/soul category.

Overall, it’s a masterfully conceived CD, from conception, songwriting, musicianship (except the occasional twang and the moments where the steel guitar rises to prominence), and… packaging even.  At the end of the day, I guess I can like country music.

5 of 5 STARS_thumb



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