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 agoWelcome 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.
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.