Produced by Sturgill Simpson
Label – Atlantic
Simpson’s 2014 sophomore release “Metamodern Sounds In Country Music”, an intoxicating Grammy nominated new country and bluegrass hybrid, showed a potent willingness to take traditional styles and embellish the final product with studio textures that enticed listeners into believing that he could be as important to his genre as Steve Earle, from thirty years previously. Whilst his much awaited follow up “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth”, follows a similar path, there’s a deliberate stretch to bolder musical territories and the results are even more fascinating. For his first full recording with a major label Simpson has added strings and horns to the familiar acoustic and pedal steel guitars. The implementation of a richer palette of sonic opportunity has not been wasted by any means, and there’s a convincing blend of Memphis soul, New Orleans funk and Stax inspired R&B. His ambitious quest is made easier by the appearance of the Dap-Kings, who perform on five of the songs.
Lyrically, “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth” takes on an unusual, but very modern concept, in that it is loosely tied together by the sense of loss and loneliness for a partner and father who is a long way from home and without his immediate family. Simpson draws on two significant life events; his time served in the U.S. Navy, and the grueling cross country road trips he embarks upon. The lines are razor sharp, his voice an original bellowing baritone as he announces with heartfelt pride on the opener “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)” the birth of his first son. Over a gently swelling instrumental backdrop he greets (“Hello my son. Welcome To Earth”), and shares his disappointment at the growth milestones he will miss, before the possibility of dwelling in personal heartache are replaced mid song by an effervescent brass rave up that jolts the senses and proves to be the first of many surprises Simpson provides at regular intervals throughout the record. Returning to more familiar fayre, the gently hushed tones of “Breaker’s Roar” show love in its simplest form, as the singer promises that an open heart will “find love all around”. Notions that could be conceived as unduly sappy feel convincing and un-apologetic in their sentiment. At 37, and with a book of life lessons behind him (including addiction issues), Simpson’s words carry a hard lived but deeply paternal and caring wisdom. The single cover, an astonishing re-work of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”, is a carefully concocted elegant ballad that is one of those rare moments when the artist honors the original, but rather than sycophantically regurgitating for undue attention, he creates something vastly different and manages to make it feel like his own composition.
“A Sailor’s Guide To Earth” is a staggering achievement, and a perfect progression for an artist who can now be numbered amongst the most innovative and refreshing country performers around. It’s one of the finest, forward looking albums you’ll hear in 2016.
1 – Welcome To Earth (Pollywog) (10)
2 – Breakers Roar (8)
3 – Keep It Between The Lines (8)
4 – Sea Stories (8)
5 – In Bloom (9)
6 – Brace For Impact (8)
7 – All Around You (9)
8 – Oh Sarah (8)
9 – Call To Arms (9)