Photo: (c) Reto Sterchi

Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Sturgill Simpson's latest musical offspring is a love letter we can all cherish.
Sturgill Simpson
A Sailor's Guide to Earth

Siring a child into the world is never not a scary proposition. It just so happens country artist Sturgill Simpson did just that in 2014, the same year his conscious-raising breakout album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was released. For many a listener, Simpson was a spiritual seeker, a highbrow musical messiah sent to return balance to a bloated Nashville formula. An independent artist operating under any institutional radar, for Simpson to approach a higher plane of enlightenment via psychotropic means — albeit on only one song — signaled a hopeful rebirth for traditional country music.

Fast-forward two years and the once-indie king of country music has signed a major label deal. After a relentless tour schedule that yielded no new songs, the first whiff of new music from Simpson was the scuzz-rock “Sugar Daddy”, the theme song for HBO’s new series Vinyl. Hinting at a new direction, the announcement of third album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was accompanied by the hedonistic roadhouse groove of first single “Brace For Impact (Live a Little)”. Bearing little resemblance to the songs and sound that made Simpson a household name, a second single — a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”, replete with weeping pedal steel, strings and Motown horns — was issued. Having shed Nashville outsider Dave Cobb who produced Metamodern Sounds and Simpson’s debut LP, High Top Mountain, the hungry hordes questioned if their savior has forsaken them.

Allaying any fears of kowtowing to corporate bosses, Simpson sidesteps any stricture imposed by moneyed suits and rote song forms with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the conceit of which is a two-sided song cycle to his newborn son. With seagulls and ship bells ushering in the opening movement of “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”, a ceremonial nocturne in which Simpson intones, “Hello, my son / Welcome to Earth”, before swelling strings give way to a brass rave up courtesy of the Dap-Kings in a four-minute span, detailing months on the road and missed growth milestones.

Delving beyond turtle myths and hallucinogens, the central thread of Metamodern Sounds was love. Carrying that theme over to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the hushed “Breakers Roar” finds Simpson offering the following advice: “Open up your heart / And you’ll find love all around.” “All Around You” with its Memphis soul and “a universal heart / Glowing, flowing / All around you” speaks to a similar promise. Simple notions, yet Simpson is not naïve to the state of the world; detailing a lyrical slide show of current global ills and humanity’s self-indulged indifference, the rolling thunder of “Call to Arms” which closes the album is both a parent’s apology for their lack of power and a lesson in identity: “Son, I hope you don’t grow up believing / That you gotta be a puppet to be a man.”

The album’s nautical motif is derived from Simpson’s teenage stint in the Navy, recounted in the cautionary tale “Sea Stories”, the album’s most country-inflected moment. Debunking press notes that A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was written in a Kerouacian flurry from front to back — Nirvana cover notwithstanding — “Oh Sarah”, with its lilting strings and marital friction, is a reworked song from Simpson’s days fronting Sunday Valley. Singing, “Out on the road / Is where I’m going to find my way”, the title character is the swallow guiding Simpson’s AWOL sailor home.

As for “In Bloom”, the song serves a dual purpose: having added the line “to love someone” to the end of the chorus, it speaks to one’s formative years when identities are forged and callousness begins to set in. Simpson, like Cobain, was lionized as a musical deity following Metamodern Sounds; using Cobain’s words, Simpson applies the song’s original meaning as a sly rejoinder to those who misunderstood his music and those likely to question his intent with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

By taking his own path and not issuing Metamodern Sounds Redux, Simpson has proven a visionary artist unafraid to risk it all by following his muse. As singer, songwriter, producer and bandleader, Simpson juggled his own destiny on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth without dropping the baby. Afforded creative freedom many felt would be stifled, Simpson’s latest musical offspring is a love letter we can all cherish. Ahmet Ertegun would be proud.

RATING 9 / 10