Monday, April 18, 2016

album review: 'a sailor's guide to earth' by sturgill simpson

I want to start this review by clarifying something important: I've talked a lot in the past about genre and how it can play a role in how artists are marketed and sold, but at the end of the day I really don't care all that much which genre an artist chooses. If an artist wants to take a pivot into uncharted territory for them, I might be skeptical of the choice, but provided they pull it off well, I'm generally pretty accepting of it.

And thus when Sturgill Simpson made his incredible sophomore album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, I had no problems at all that he was blending in elements of psychedelic rock - after all, he did it well, one of the many reasons that record is one of my favourites of 2014. But what started to irk me was the aftermath of it all, and one you can expect when an artist starts getting crossover attention from the hipster crowd. And by now, anyone who has followed Sturgill had heard the comments: 'oh, I don't like country music, but I like Sturgill Simpson', as if they'd like to pretend that country was never a factor because they'd never want to be associated with it. Seriously, those pretentious twits can blow me, mostly because country is just as viable of an artform as any other genre and denying the role Sturgill has played does a disservice to everyone, especially his producer on that record Dave Cobb, who recently released with Southern Family one of the best country records and albums period that I've heard in the past few years.

That said, I had heard that Sturgill Simpson was going to be taking his country influences even further afoot with his upcoming record A Sailor's Guide To Earth, beyond psychedelia and into more soul tones, including a full horns section, and combined with Sturgill not working with Dave Cobb and producing the entire record himself, I was a little concerned. Sure, it was bound to be a very good, probably great record, but this sort of experimentation was pushing into uncharted territory, and if the fundamentals are compromised, this could get messy. But look, the man has incredible talent and I had hope that A Sailor's Guide To Earth might stick the landing: did Sturgill pull it off?

Whoo boy, this is a tricky one - but then again, Sturgill Simpson never makes records that are entirely easy to digest, especially if you're expecting him to conform to any specific expectations... but let's get real, given how much I praised Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, you all want to know if I think this record is better. So let's get this out of the way: is A Sailor's Guide to Earth a good record? Most definitely, it's a great record, potentially one of the most potent you'll hear this year. But is it better than Metamodern Sounds In Country Music? No, it's really not, and no, this isn't just a butthurt country fan who wished Sturgill stayed closer to the traditional sound - there are other issues, albeit small ones, that keep it back from really ascending to that height.

So let's start out with Sturgill himself, and really, I feel like I'm repeating myself but it's a sentiment that bears repeating: this man has one of the best voices in country music, indie or otherwise. Sure, Chris Stapleton might have more direct power, but Sturgill Simpson has subtlety and control to let his more liquid tones play across different ranges, from the full-throated howls to quieter moments barely above a murmur. And while you could always make the Waylon Jennings comparison, Sturgill's rawness and willingness to play to rougher sounds does enough to set him apart. Of course, this also comes at the cost of enunciation, because unless you're familiar with Sturgill's drawl, his voice can be a little difficult to decipher, not really helped by the rougher vocal pickup and his most layered production to date. This is one of those records where I'm incredibly grateful I managed to find lyrics, even though, just like on his last record, they're really not the most important element here, or even the most distinctive.

Now you'd think that me saying that might seem odd, especially considering Sturgill himself has described this as a concept album, framed around a series of life lessons he's passing down to his son through extended nautical metaphors. Well, here's the funny thing: especially in comparison to Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, this record might feature some of Sturgill's most refreshingly straightforward writing to date. The most common overarching metaphor parallels the relationship between a sailor and the turbulent seas to that of a musician and his art, and Sturgill does plenty to highlight both of their seductive allure on tracks like 'Breakers Roar'. And yet of course it gets more complicated than that, because Sturgill's sailor takes the form of a Navy soldier on tracks like 'Sea Stories' and 'Call To Arms' and on the latter case doesn't shy away from the darkness that can come with being an enlisted man, having sold his identity for a higher power that piles up the casualties for all of the wrong reasons. And between these songs and 'Brace For Impact (Live A Little)', the lead-off single that uses consciousness of death to make life all the more appealing, it's very clear that Sturgill's not sugar-coating even any metaphorical lesson - providing, of course, the straightforward political rant on 'Call To Arms' isn't a metaphor or a piece of the nightmare that Sturgill howls against. 

And to push that even further, we have Sturgill's cover of Nirvana's 'In Bloom' sitting square in the middle of the record, with one of the more fascinating lyrical expansions I've seen. Where Kurt Cobain intended it for people outside of the music scene who didn't get the band's messaging, Sturgill recontextualizes to fit for his son, showing that despite bravado and the music, he doesn't know what it means to love someone, showing the alternate side to the boy he counsels against the darker world. It was a lyrical shift that Sturgill had to get permission from the Cobain estate to make, and really it makes the cover fit within the record - to the point where I do wish Sturgill had opted for a tad more nuance or complex framing on other songs here, like the fairly straightforward 'Keep It Between The Lines' where he tries to deflect from his past hypocrisy to advise his son, or 'Call To Arms''s political rant... but again, it's not like you're going to Sturgill for storytelling or lyricism, and I'd argue on tracks like 'Sea Stories' he brings plenty of detail.

But I've avoided the elephant in the room long enough: the instrumentation and production. To be blunt, Sturgill Simpson easily took the biggest step from traditional country with this record, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't miss Dave Cobb's production along with it, if only to better blend some of the more garish textures together. Granted, this is still country, albeit deeply entrenched in the Muscle Shoals sound complete with layers of strings, thicker bass guitar grooves, a lot of weedy organ lines, and a meaty horns section. And for the most part, it comes together amazingly well: the strings alternate between ragged and rich, the effects-laiden steel guitar cuts some phenomenal melodies across this mix, the pianos add a ton of energy to work with the smoky guitar lines, and the bass guitar had plenty of presence to build to some great grooves. And there are so many instrumental moments that just click so well for me: the gorgeous piano opening on 'Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)'; the great tonal shift on the solo of 'Sea Stories' that has this richer, fuzzed out sound that has phenomenal body to it; the absolutely infectious sax on 'All Around You', and the ability to build to several killer solos on 'Call To Arms'. Even the quieter moments, like the steel-touched 'Breakers Roar' and the very muted bass and strings on 'Oh Sarah' really stick for me, and even while some might consider Sturgill's restrained crescendo of the 'In Bloom' cover total heresy, it's the sort of reinterpretation that takes the strength of the original composition and totally reconfigures it to fit within the context of the album. Now where things get a little shaky - and everyone who has heard this album knows this is coming - is in the horns section. And the issue is fairly straightforward - there are points where they just feel overstated and overshadow parts of the mix that could have used the attention, or they could have been blended into the overall sound a little better. The bizarre thing is that there are points where the horns are blended well, particularly when they sound a little rougher or scuzzier, like on 'Brace For Impact (Live A Little)' or the weedier trumpet on 'Keep It Between The Lines' - in comparison, the more easy-going progression on 'All Around You' might fit and again, the sax solo is great, but it does feel a little light given its position on the record.

So at the end of the day... look, I'm not going to say I like this more than Metamodern Sounds In Country Music - I don't, and I'm not sure it's got the killer standout cuts that made that record so powerful - but I have no qualms whatsoever saying this album is damn great and definitely worth all of your time, regardless if you like country or not. To me, Sturgill Simpson is on a winning streak, and the more I've listened through this album, the more I get the feeling that'll probably round out my favourite records of this year. So yeah, for me this is a light 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations - and yeah, I'm repeating what every other critic has said here, but at the same time, this record really is something special, so definitely check it out - you won't regret it.

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