Monday, September 30, 2019

album review: 'SOUND & FURY' by sturgill simpson

I think at this point it doesn't make sense to have expectations for what Sturgill Simpson makes. Sure, I was drawn most initially to his experimentation in country music, where he would stick with that foundational sound before pushing into psychedelia or the Muscle Shoals sound or even alternative or southern rock, but everything he has done in recent years has suggested he'd never stay there, and more to the point was not particularly interested in chasing the easy follow-up. He could have easily remained a stalwart in indie country just by retracing the same paths of Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, but A Sailor's Guide To Earth was not that. And in his writing especially while his primary reference points in composition seem to have roots in country, his time stationed in Asia sparked a fondness for anime, and that's not even touching on his politics, which are generally left of the dial and aren't that far removed from conspiracy theory territory.

And I bring all of this up because while he won a Grammy for A Sailor's Guide to Earth, his contempt and general disinterest in the machinations of the music industry meant that regardless of what his label might want, he was going to make music with little care for marketing or even genre, let alone the possibility of radio play - yes, Nashville was never going to play him anyway, but it seemed like he was going out of his way to give them excuses. So when I heard that SOUND & FURY was less indie country and more a curdled blend of fiery southern rock and 80s synth rock... well, it's not like I haven't seen misfires like this before, but Simpson is a great enough writer and producer to stick the landing, and that's not even getting into that anime film he released along side of it which as per usual I'm not going to cover - the album has to stand alone. So okay, what did we get with SOUND & FURY?

You ever have the feeling after listening to a project that it should be more difficult to have a defined opinion on it than you do? Yeah, that's how I've felt with SOUND & FURY, which yes, I will say is a great album that spits in the face of genres and has the swaggering potency to occupy a potent lane... and yet still feels like Sturgill Simpson's least interesting project to date, especially when you claw your way into the dense, roaring waves of synth rock groove and howling southern rock distortion. And a big part of it feels like it's rooted in this album's focus: where his country and country-adjacent projects prodded at genre barriers, this album divorced from those restraints winds up curdling inwards and just doesn't hit with the same impact - and while it's still a pretty great listen, it doesn't reach the tier of what Simpson has delivered before.

But before we get into that, let's talk about the overall sound of this album, which has left a lot of folks a little baffled where to even start, but strangely does seem to make a certain amount of sense once you squeeze yourself into Simpson's mindset. On the compositional level, many of these songs are rooted in structures that are fundamentally country or southern rock with a splash of Queens of the Stone Age - especially barn-burners like 'Sing Along', 'A Good Look', and 'Last Man Standing' - all with an emphasis on developed, galloping melodic grooves. And yet to go along with them, he grabbed up thick cushions of burbling, analog synths that have about as much shrill, howling presence as the waves of smoldering guitar feedback and chugging riffs. Critics have pointed towards the 1980s and Stranger Things as an easy parallel, but that's not really the right foundation point: SOUND & FURY owes more to the synthwave scene that erupted across the internet in recent years with the cutting buzzy layers, gated reverb around the percussion pickups, and in some cases, a cushion of eerie, quasi-gothic sampling that seem to call back to the 80s film scores and French House that inspired the genre - more Vangelis or in today's day and age Gunship, if you catch my drift. And when you consider the older palette of anime that inspires some of the Japanese chord progressions and flute-like tones slipped onto songs like 'Remember To Breathe', and the fact that Sturgill's flair for the retro eschews more programmed and obvious futurism, it's actually a little startling how well on a textural level they all blend together into a strange but seamless composite whole. And I have to give Simpson a lot of credit for hearing that textural connection and seeing how for an album that's at least sardonically aware of impending doom can fuse a defiantly 80s dystopian tone with his brand of swampy indie country. 

Only one problem: for as many points as I give Simpson for seeing the potential of this sonic fusion, did he have to brick the mix so thoroughly? Guitars and synths are blended into a textural wall of sound where the pulsating groove has presence, but the feedback damn near clipping the front and top of the mix sounds a half step removed from a Dave Fridmann mix, and can't help but strip some of the more interesting dynamics away from a cool idea, with the most glaring example being 'Best Clockmaker On Mars', even with that cool synth breakdown. Yeah, on a subtextual level it makes sense in setting that scrappy, post-apocalyptic vibe, and Simpson is going to wail away on his guitar and shred more than any project previous and that'll kick ass, but imagine how much more impact it could have if it wasn't fighting against a titanic cloud of feedback from both synths and guitars where his playing just feels smothered. And since his lead solos aren't higher up, they wind up getting suffocated where the synths often aren't, which can wind up feeling unbalanced. And speaking of smothered elements, I can't be the only one exasperated by how Simpson will just bury his vocals yet again, this time moreso than ever between the feedback and the reverb, right? Yeah, he's got the wild presence to cut through, but for a singer with such a huge voice it feels like he's not prioritizing one of his strongest assets, especially when you have a claustrophobic atmosphere that could use a central presence as focus. At this album's best, we get those moments, often linked to the huge melodic grooves, like the pulsating swagger behind 'Remember To Breathe', the buzzed out squonk of 'Sing Along', the even faster boogie influence on the bass and backing synths of 'A Good Look', the blasting synth playing off the sharper guitar line on 'Make Art Not Friends', or the choppy rollick on 'Last Man Standing', and the spacey psychedelia on permeating the keyboards and 'All Said And Done' and 'Mercury In Retrograde' is a lot of fun too. But I can't just ignore how 'Best Clockmaker On Mars' is compressed to hell, or how 'Last Man Standing' drowns so much of the vocals, or how 'Fastest Horse In Town' is content to blast away without properly centering Simpson's voice, even on the hook!

Of course, this is where we have to talk about what Simpson is actually saying on this album, which takes us to the content and where I'd argue there's the biggest focus: how much Sturgill Simpson really, really hates the music industry. He has not hesitated to call this album the one that burns every bridge he might have had there, and if the sound isn't enough to do it, the lyrics probably would, from 'A Good Look' having complete disdain for those who chase cheap publicity and how many would be aghast he's throwing it all away, to 'Best Clockmaker On Mars' sketching a blatant parallel to Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen in his desire to escape it all, from his weary contempt of the sycophants and hangers-on and even music journalists on 'Mercury In Retrograde' to how infuriating writer's block has made him want to take off for the hills on both 'Fastest Horse In Town' and 'All Said And Done'. I mean, for god's sake he made a song called 'Make Art Not Friends', where touring has taken a hard toll and he feels utterly miserable in the face of a world mid-collapse, where his words become weapons all the more on 'Last Man Standing' and the cutting, sarcastic bitterness of 'Sing Along'! And while you can tell the vast majority of his antipathy is focused on the industry that wanted him to chase Grammys and make bank on touring again when his mind is clearly elsewhere and in a much darker space, it's hard to avoid the feeling that just as much contempt is focused on the audience that buys all that same bullshit, which is why 'Last Man Standing' is the object lesson to his son as he works to burn everything down around him - he's done pandering, he's not going to be a part of your system, man! And look, for a pure adrenaline rush of end-of-the-world, burn it all down rage that wants to create something pure and new out of the ashes to the point where I can't quite call it nihilistic, it's potent and it's not like the music industry doesn't deserve the brunt of it... but it's also the sort of jaded arrogance that feels self-serving, privileged, and increasingly flimsy the more you search for any sort of deeper observation or conclusion beyond Simpson feeling creatively stifled as an artist. You'd think there'd be some sort of subtextual moment that would come through, like when Silk Spectre triggered the curiosity in humanity and the miracle of human life in Dr. Manhattan on Mars in Alan Moore's text... but that doesn't happen, leaving the curdled world-weariness and the sour isolationist streak drenched in machismo where I wasn't surprised at all to hear a snippet of what sounded like Alex Jones to open up the album on 'Ronin'. 

And that's the weirdly frustrating thing about SOUND & FURY to me: it might feature some killer tunes with Sturgill Simpson cutting loose and diving into a somewhat unique - if frustratingly produced - sonic fusion, but in the content feels increasingly one-note and lacking the wry maturity or wisdom that characterized his last two albums, an id unleashed that has a ton of potency but I can see not having a ton of staying power. I've seen comparisons of the accompanying anime to the 1981 cult anthology film Heavy Metal, and on the album alone I can see it: boundary-pushing and stylistically potent, but sliding towards a brand of overwrought adolescent machismo that might win him an audience he doesn't want, especially given that he's over forty. Now that being said, I get what this is as an artistic power fantasy and it doesn't really tread into the ugly underbelly of what this thematic arc normally hits, but there's an antisocial sourness I'm not often wanting to revisit, so while I'm giving this a light 8/10, I'm also going to say that this is my least favourite of Simpson's albums by a considerable margin and I'm not sure it'll age well. But if you want a thunderous blaze of glory to course through your system, SOUND & FURY does deliver on that goal - I just wouldn't think too deeply on its implications, as when you're riding this sort of crimson tide, not much thought tends to come to mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment