“If there’s any doubt there is no doubt”: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (2016)

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Hard to believe it’s been 8 years since Sturgill Simpson released Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.  His second album found him dragging outlaw country right into these troubled modern times and drawing comparisons to Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard and the likes.  It was a far better album than the hype would suggest (yeah, I know, it was a highly acclaimed album, but it was beyond awesome, okay) and it wasn’t just witty, funny and dark, it was deep and philosophical.  It included all sorts of good vibes, an outstanding cover choice and reptile aliens made of light.  That, my friends, is what I want from my country music.

It was inevitable that Sturgill would find himself in the crosshairs of a major label and it was pretty huge when it was announced that he’d signed with Atlantic Records.  Now he’d get that Grammy, we thought.  Now he’s gonna make something that’ll blow our minds.  And, well, he did.  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is quite a shift.  He left his first two records behind and threw together a soul album.

Sturgill draws from his experiences in the Navy, a letter that his grandfather wrote to his grandmother, and wrote his own letter to his wife and new-born son. As a result, it’s his most personal album to date.  It’s also a soul album.

As you can imagine, there are strings.  There are also horns.  A lot of horns.  The whole thing is just a funky piece of often sentimental country music.  The influences are wide… I hear Glen Campbell, Lowell George, Neil Diamond, and (Aloha from Hawaii) Elvis.

My opinion of it has swayed back and forth over the last few years.  The punch in the gut I got when I hear the opening lines of Welcome to Earth (Pollywog) is still there despite my tiring of the horns and the fact there’s no answer to why he now knows the reason why his grandfather always said God’s a fisherman.  My love for that track is down to timing – given that I was fairly new to the parenthood game myself at the time.  I could relate to it, y’know.

Hello, my son welcome to Earth.

You may not be my last but you’ll always be my first.

Wish I’d done this ten years ago

Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)

Anyhoo, as you’ll have guessed, the mood is very different to that of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and the Dap-Kings ensure that there’s a fair bit of swing happening. Depending on the mood, I can find it a bit too loud.  There’s joy and then there’s shouting from the rooftops with a brass band when you don’t really need them (trust me, the songs are strong enough).

It’ll come as no surprise, then, that I consider the best moments to be the quieter tracks like Breakers Roar, his take of Nirvana’s In Bloom and Oh Sarah.  Two of which appear on Side A. Oh Sarah is definitely one of my favourite Sturgill songs. The double bass… the strings. The mood and Sturgill’s vocal is incredible. Also, as good as In Bloom is, it’s maybe a bit out of place – though I acknowledge that might be because I’m so familiar with the song.

As well as Welcome to Earth (Pollywog), Keep Between the Lines is another letter for his son. Here he offers some advice – like “most thoughts deserve about two or three more”, “sometimes you get burned”, “the gut don’t never lie and the only word you’ll ever need to know in life is why”. Sound advice.

The inside of the gatefold is totes amaze, innit.

I also really like Brace for Impact (Live a Little) and it’s message to live life while you can. It’s rolls and rumbles and points the way to what Sturgill has up his sleeves in just a couple of short years. Sturgill is throwing it all out there and he makes a helluva case for living. Not just a message for his kid, but I guess he’s telling us all to get on with living. Fuck yeah.

You know, there’s some of that wit and humour in there and plenty that I can relate to as a father. A lot of messages about making the right choices. There are things that will speak to an audience that may not normally buy into this whole country soul thing with lines like “maybe get high, play a little GoldenEye on that old ‘64” from Sea Stories.

Despite all the positives, though, I’ve found that it’s not one I revisit all that often. It’s not a bad album (far from it) – the songs are well crafted and it’s clear that he and his co-conspirators have put a lot of care into making it.  I appreciate the sonic expansiveness of this new Sturgill Simpson Revue, but there’s nothing that holds my attention and made me think the way Metamodern Sounds in Country Music still does. Perhaps the references to the Navy and sea living is what prevents me from truly connecting and falling head over heals?

That and the horns.

A lot of horns. 

And yeah, he did get that Grammy.  If only the weight of Atlantic Records was behind Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

** This is the standard vinyl edition.  There’s a Limited Edition version on blue vinyl, which comes in the same gatefold sleeve.  As well as the printed inner sleeve, the limited version includes a poster.

41 Comments Add yours

  1. deKE says:

    Man, that is a nice gatefold Mr. J! Better yet great to see you back writing! Cheers Fella!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with Deke on all accounts.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. deKE says:

        Thanks Snowman!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. J. says:

      Cheers, Deke! It’s a really nice LP.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Aphoristical says:

    I think I’ve checked out one Simpson record on your recommendation – I obviously need to hear more sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      My two Simpson go-tos are Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and Sound & Fury (the one after this). Both worth spending time with.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. msjadeli says:

    I first heard Sturgill in Jim Jarmusch’ zombie movie, then I saw a short on netflix with his music. He’s good, and this song is great. Reminds me a little of Drive-by Truckers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      That short on Netflix is really brilliant… I can’t stop thinking about it when I listen to Sound & Fury now. Really striking.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. badfinger20 (Max) says:

    I heard of him not long ago. It’s awesome to see a country artist that is not the pop/plastic type that can be pumped out by Nashville…this guy has depth…and I agree with everyone on the gatefold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      Yeah, he’s very much doing his own thing… creating some lasting music in the process.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. badfinger20 (Max) says:

        I wish others would think more about the music than fame…and the southern/pop hits.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Ive been listening tom ‘Cuttin Grass’. I forgot who sent me there. Maybe you or I picked it up somewhere else.
    I like the strings and the steel on the cut you posted. Haunting sound like the one you and I are looking at together. Lots of similarities. haunting. lonesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      I still haven’t picked up those Cuttin’ Grass albums. Haven’t so much as heard a note from them. Bluegrass versions of his stuff, aye?

      I thought that cut might appeal to you. His version of In Bloom would likely appeal also.

      Like

      1. Some but not all. I forgot how I got into it. It just appeals to me. It’s hard for new stuff like this to bust into me. There was some hook though that did it.
        Definitely consistent so everything should be in the wheelhouse. Listening to ‘Bloom’ right now. It’s good J. That steel kills me. He has a Haggard vibe. No pushing the vocals.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        Sturgill’s been one of my favourites for a while… he’s the real deal. He and JP Harris have been the two ‘country’ artists that I get most excited about these days.

        Like

      3. Now ill have to give JP a listen. Recommendations?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. J. says:

        Hit up Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing. It’s as near perfect as an album can get.

        Like

      5. Thanks. I will do it.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. J. says:

        Let me know how you get on!

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Oh yeah I sent the Bruce take again. Hope it worked.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. J. says:

        I’ll check!

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Check this out J. Look on Charlie’s face when the host asks him if he wrote the tune. Hunter is good and so is his trio. A little Coltrane action.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. J. says:

        I like this… I was thinking it was nice, but the man on the sax really pulled me in. He really lifts it.

        Liked by 1 person

      11. Its just cool the range of musicians Cobain influenced.

        Liked by 1 person

      12. J. says:

        Totally. They were the right band at the right time. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the thing with Cobain was that he inspired people to pick up instruments… you didn’t have to be great, y’know? Then you kicked on from there.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. keepsmealive says:

    I like horns. A lot of horns. And Sturgill is great, I need to hear this. I get the feeling it’ll hit me right where I’m at, at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      Well, you’ll not be disappointed if you’re looking for the combination of Sturgill and horns. This is a funky piece of business if not always hitting home as I would have hoped.

      Like

      1. keepsmealive says:

        Set it aside for a while. There’ll come a time when it hits just right (so says my own voice of experience). 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        I think it hit just right back when I first heard it – what with recently becoming a father and all. It still has its moments that I feel connected to, but overall it doesn’t quite connect. Like I say, though, it’s not a slight on the songwriting (or the album really).

        Like

      3. keepsmealive says:

        Parenthood’ll do that to a man, eh? Oh man. I used to sing Tragically Hip songs to our son to get him to go to sleep as a baby.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. J. says:

        It will, yeah. It was Tom Wait’s and Sinatra I sang most of all. Probably sang most of Mule Variations and Bad As Me! Waits’ tunes have a lullaby quality. There were others too, right enough.

        Like

      5. keepsmealive says:

        Absolutely, though the kid would never sleep if you imitated the growl! LOL

        Liked by 1 person

      6. J. says:

        Haha! Quite likely. Though the kids love his voice… so much so I often use it as my inspiration when I’m reading the Once-lers parts from the Lorax! Haha!

        Like

      7. keepsmealive says:

        I know exactly what you mean, I’ve read that book aloud a time or a million. Well done!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. stephen1001 says:

    That Goldeneye/Nintendo 64 line definitely would have jumped out at me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      I never had a Nintendo 64, but my friend did and I could often be found there doing all-nighters while listening to music, playing Golden Eye and Blast Corps. It’s safe to say his parents were unimpressed. But that song really reminded me of those times and even if I wasn’t getting high, the song struck a chord. Good times.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. stephen1001 says:

        I recall attempting to do a group study session for a math exam at one point – it ended up in a group N64 Mario Kart battle session instead!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Jade says:

    I’m not familiar with Sturgill Simpson, except for that one song in The Dead Don’t Die. But I searched up his cover of In Bloom out of curiosity anyway. Interesting take!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. J. says:

      Metamoderns Sounds in Country Music is a great place to start if you liked the Dead Don’t Die number, though I think Sound & Fury (both the album and the Netflix feature) is definitely worth your time.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jade says:

        Awesome thanks, I’ll check them out right away! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. J. says:

        Let me know how you get on – I think the Netflix film is a visual treat.

        Liked by 1 person

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