By: Derek Jung with an Edit from Joseph Kathmann
DEREK: For all of the criticism that modern country music receives from music snobs around the world, there are just as many who believe that artists like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton are the second coming of Jesus Christ for the genre and the end of bro-country with lyrics that have the depth of a gym rat college frat boys. As a music fan, I find myself somewhere in the middle. Outlaw country is not exactly the newest idea in the world, but I will admit that seeing it gain in popularity, especially outside its normal fan base, gives me a glimmer of hope for country music in a broader sense.
My wife and I saw Sturgill Simpson live after the release of his sophomore album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, an album that was widely acclaimed for blurring the boundaries between country music, soul, and psychedelic rock. The venue was so crowded that there were undoubtedly fire code violations, but Sturgill was mesmerizing; he sang with this power and authority of someone that was born to be a songwriter, and that power was duplicated on the album. At the time, we didn't realize that Sturgill had just become a father. His newborn son would become the focus of A Sailor's Guide to Earth, described as an album written to him, filled with stories of Sturgill's past, his time in the military, mistakes, regrets, and advice for how his son should live his life.
For those expecting a repeat of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, you'll be disappointed with this album. Gone are many of the psychedelic elements, traded instead for the funky R&B sounds of The Dap-Kings, known not only for being the backing band for Sharon Jones, but also for their fantastic horn work for Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson among others. The combination of horns and Sturgill's gritty country vibes provide for many surprising and gratifying turns. The first occurs on the opening song "Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)", which starts as a slow country ballad before exploding into a neo-soul rock song, perfectly setting the tone for what The Dap-Kings would bring to the rest of the album. This isn't to say Sturgill overuses The Dap-Kings; "Sea Stories" returns to his classic outlaw form, a literal story of his time at sea while in the Navy where he name drops a number of Pacific island locations.
What follows "Sea Stories" is a surprise cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom", slowed down and mellowed out for the first half, before a violin solo segues into horns, strings, and a ferocious chorus. So many artists cover Nirvana, but there's something about this one, the placement in the album, the way it's orchestrated in the typical soft-to-loud Nirvana format but with a country spin, the horns and strings complimenting Sturgill's gravelly voice, that makes it truly special. It's also worth noting that he unintentionally messed up the final line of the chorus. Whereas the original says "But he knows not what it means, knows not what it means", Sturgill sings "But he don't know what it means, don't know what it means" and then adds "to love someone". Those final three words have such a profound impact on the song. They completely change the feeling, and in the context of the album, sharing life stories and giving advice to his son, it brings to light a different aspect of the song that wouldn't otherwise have been felt. There are going to be times for his son when he's unable to find meaning in his life, just as Sturgill experienced in his small town in Kentucky. There are going to be trials and mistakes made, but as Strugill said to Rolling Stone Magazine, "he can be sensitive and compassionate — he doesn’t have to be tough or cold to be a man".
The first single from the album was "Brace For Impact (Live a Little)". The song is probably the most familiar sounding for those used to Metamodern Sounds of Country Music, as it examines the need to live passionately while you're alive. The song is the longest on the album, nearly six minutes long and features an extended jam which breaks into a heavy synth groove until the end.
Sturgill proves yet again on A Sailor's Guide to Earth that he can push the boundaries of country music where few modern artists dare to go, and he does it with passion, creative energy, and the unique ability to capture our imaginations. All things said, I think it's fair to say that Sturgill's son has a masterpiece in his honor before his 2nd birthday.
My Number: 9/10
JOSEPH: Oh hey! Didn't see you there. I just wanted to show up quickly here and compliment Sturgill Simpson for creating an absolutely incredible work of art on this album. From the first notes of "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" to the final jam of "Call to Arms" Simpson had me completely hooked. While, like Derek, the highlight for me was "Sea Stories" and an almost completely invisible transition into the surprising Nirvana cover, I also want to quick highlight the closer of this album. "Call to Arms" has quickly become one of my favorite songs of 2016, as it features a great jam from The Dap-Kings with Sturgill's southern vocals flying over top. This song brings back vibes of The Blues Brothers and other classics of the 70s and 80s with its funky country manner. As someone who lives in Nashville and hears "bro country" at every turn, Simpson's new album is a a refreshing turn from the status quo. Now I have another album to blare that makes me feel like a Nashville native as I drive down Broadway with the windows down. Thank you for that, Sturgill Simpson.
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here.