When I was first introduced to Kentucky-born Sturgill Simpson, it was in the midst of the new wave of Outlaw country music that saw the likes of the aforementioned Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton among others being guided to critical success. It also helped put their producer Dave Cobb on the map as a now award-laden, always-brilliant veteran behind the boards.
And while that iron strong musicianship, songwriting, talent and production has quite easily shown up contemporary pop-country “notables” like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, there was always something different when it came to Sturgill Simpson. Sure, he made his strong 2013 debut High Top Mountain pretty much the Nashville Gold Standard for old school country music (right down to the session musicians), but instead of continuing down that road he grew fatigued with simply repeating the same formula. Thus Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was born back in 2014, which had the same appearance at times as Mountain but also largely snuck in major psychedelics as well as lyricisms that reached out for as many out of body aliens as LSD.
Having already branched out heavily into both country music and psychedelia, many wondered what would be next for Simpson as he approached the release for LP #3 A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (his first record that was self-produced instead of with Cobb). Initial single “Brace For Impact (Live a Little)” was a nearly 6 minute, swamp style level of deeply shaded blues that showed Simpson as equally capable of rocking out as twanging into heartbreak. And it’s followup (a heavily rearranged cut of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”) took a song that still has that almost annoyingly recognizable earworm of a chorus and flips it into an emotionally vulnerable, contemplative song that looks at the state of growing up as an often hapless teenager.
At the time of “In Bloom” and it’s single release I wondered why such an unusually left field song choice made this album. However, once you get to know the story of Sailor’s it fits smoothly together as a developing concept instead of a record of simply songs. Simpson wrote the album as an ode to his recently born son (as well as a nod to favorite concept albums by Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison), and that theme immediately becomes apparent on opening cut “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)”.
In it, Simpson doesn’t go over the top on his lyrics (as is the case across the album), but he lets his heart speak with a mix of tenderness and regret along with a burst of sweeping strings, subtle guitars, and a tempo change buoyed by the sharp horn play of The Dap Kings. It’s a major 180 degree introductory transition that may turn away listeners of his first two albums, but I for one applaud Simpson for continuing to innovate himself and to never be satisfied coming back to the same well of inspiration.
Whether it’s the Polaroid of tenderness that’s “Breakers Roar” or “Sarah”, the Johnny Cash jam funk of “Keep It Between The Lines”, or the Meatloaf “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” vibes of Preservation Jazz Hall Band stomper “Call To Arms”, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is hand’s down one of the best, genre-hopping transitionary albums I’ve heard in quite some time. At first listen it may seem a bit manic in it’s pacing, but when you absorb it as one whole piece…. the puzzle slowly turns into the beautiful picture that lies beneath.
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is not only a great album in terms of it’s conceptual nature, but in that it seeks to thematically explore what a traveling musician of a father would want to say to his son both now and for the rest of his life. In a sense it almost feels voyeuristic to know the story behind it, but by the same token those themes of love, regret to not see your child grow, guidance, tenderness and joy in what you do get to experience remain universal.
And for that, I give Sturgill Simpson and A Sailor’s Guide To Earth one of the highest marks of albums not only amongst his current peers in the industry, but for the year itself. It’s an artistically nuanced, gorgeously flowing piece of music punctuated by a seamless parade of musical elements and creativity.
And I don’t know about you, but I feel like I have a better guide to this Earth already.
Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is available now on all platforms and formats, and through his website sturgillsimpson.com!