A Sailors Guide To Earth
**** out of *****
When Metasounds in Country Music was released in 2014 Sturgill Simpson rose to prominence on the story that he reinvigorated a bloated and lax Nashville country music scene with weird psychedelic elements and a voice everyone compared to Merle Haggard. For an encore Simpson decided to take total control by singing, arraigning and producing (removing the acclaimed David Cobb from the seat) and releasing of A Sailors Guide To Earth on a major label (Atlantic). Nashville isn't his target this go around, the complete American songbook is; a weighty task, but one Simpson almost pulls off.
Caged as a sailors letter home to his son from far away (drawing on his newborn son, his life as a Naval officers son and perhaps his grandfathers actual letters) the album has a concept in giving advice, growing up and keeping the dream alive. More wide ranging than any country disk in years the musicianship is a joy to behold; Simpson has brought the Muscle Shoal sound, overdone string sections and a mid 70's sense soul/funk to the forefront.
The first few tracks begin with waves, a sailor chant or ship bells before dipping into their own myths. On the opener "Welcome To Earth (PollyWag)" the soothing ocean leads to string swells higher than most white caps as introductions are given. The Daptone Horns are major players on this disk bringing a soulful direction that juices up almost every effort, whether it be delicate fills or huge builds, the Brooklyn based brass are dynamite.
The country twang moves into the realm of lies and tall tails on "Sea Stories" with the most confident singing Simpson has shown up until now. Then the players take on "In Bloom" which comes in eerily, feeling natural among the wide-ranging sounds, as Simpson continues his gift of reinterpreting tunes (check out "The Promise" if you've missed it). A soothing violin driven effort, complete with a huge horn crescendo; one thing is for certain, Kurt would have loved it.
While the cover of Nirvana twists sounds around, "Brace For Impact (Live A Little)" finds Simpson fuzzing up and going for a distorted rock/electronic sound. While it goes on a minute to long, you can feel Simpson swaggering with confidence. That bravado moves into big band land for the cathartic "All Around You", and it is around here you begin to notice the sound of the disk outweighs the song writing.
The overall sonic aesthetic is unforgettable but few songs/lyrics really knock it out of the park. Simpsons new found freedom allowed him to indulge in studio magic and fantastic backing players, but they shine brighter then the lyrics being sung.
Simpson comes back to the sailor motif for the raucous finale that motors with an energy not found elsewhere, the barn burner is jarring to close the sweeping disk on such a powerful trip. "Call To Arms" is a monster and by placing it at the end Simpson closes strong, but a mid-album placing would have been more effective, putting his Nirvana tribute to close instead would have pushed the listener even further from their comfort zone and prepped for what's to come.
It is not a perfect record, but A Sailor's Guide To Earth firmly breaks Simpson from the Nashville mold and label, making him a must here now and going forward; this will appeal to any fan of robust adventurous music.
A very interesting album, and one that intrigues us in many ways, not least of which begins at the start, you see that sick ass album art? Support the artist, buy the record and peep some video below: