Sturgill Simpson is helping to rewrite the definition of authenticity in country music. Today, if you have a boozy baritone and kind of sound like Waylon, you’re expected to sing about the good old days and being an outlaw, which, in its own way, is becoming about as much of a ploy and gimmick as Luke Bryan singing about drinking on some beach. (See Eric Church). For a genre that seems to be split between bubblegum and alternative, Sturgill is a breath of fresh air, bringing not only a sense of sincerity and self-awareness to deeply-rooted honky tonk, but also a wry sense of humor and innovative ideas that bring a storied style into the 21st century without watering it down.
On Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, his sophomore album, the former member of Sunday Valley continues to prove he’s one of the most promising, weird, hard-hitting, unpredictable and honest songwriters out there. Evocative ache, gutter poetics, fond memories and excitable degeneracy blend together in an intelligent and articulate range of emotions, all anchored by a strong, believable voice that can be as intimidating as it can be gentle.
Metamodern Sounds In Country Music doesn’t carry the same unfiltered, raw energy as his debut album, High Top Mountain, did. But, where he was bottling lightning, he’s now cleaning up the aftermath of the storm, patching together what works and smoothing everything over. On Metamodern, there’s less 1950s rockabilly and 1960s Bakersfield, instead taking on a more ambitious, scattered array of genres: Appalachian gospel, piercing folk and even a little strange psychedelia.
His blessing and his curse is his voice. Now, with some recent success the curse part doesn’t really seem to apply much anymore, but, as many of the songs on his first album addressed, he struggled to gain traction because he refused to be molded. He recently told the Wall Street Journal that nobody was interested in his first album because “it was too country for the hipsters and too country for the pop labels”. But, he also seemed hellbent on separating himself from being marked as any sort of nostalgia act. (One song, “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean”, has a great line about that: “Well, the most outlaw thing that I’ve ever done was give a good woman a ring.”) So, he created a label.
They say true badasses never actually talk about being a badass, which in an indirect way applies to Sturgill’s music: it’s authentic because he doesn’t sing about being “authentic”. In some corners of country music—and this mostly applies to the radio-ready machine, but not necessarily always—everything is oriented around a contrived and glorified subculture that greatly embellishes rural America. But, Simpson has an integrity that surpasses that: when he shares his stories, they may not be automatically relatable or provide some sort of fantasy, but they feel very real, which gives the songs their own, substantially deep sort of edge and continuity. He has the ability as a writer to turn the mundane into magic, kind of making him the Raymond Carver of honky tonk.
Sturgill Simpson throws one deep out of left field on Metamodern Sounds In Country Music’s opening track, “Turtles All the Way Down”, a floating, psychedelic crooner that covers everything from having a head full of drugs to space/time to reptiles that “cut you open and pull out all your pain”. It’s mind-bending, raw and excellent. The next track, “Life of Sin”, touches back down from space and steps right back into a smokey barroom, with powerhouse vocals and dancing, raucous guitar lines that seem ready to start trouble. “A Little Light” is a backporch footstomper that splices in just enough gospel. And “Just Let Go” will make the hair on your arms stand up.
But what has stuck with me through the last few weeks is the way his snarl turns the seemingly insignificant into the drop of a sledgehammer, like the end of the chorus in “Living the Dream”: “Oh, I don’t have to do a goddamn thing, but sit around and wait to die.” But, for him, it’s fitting.