I hate writing reviews like this. So I’m supposed to sit here and peck out a bunch of words to convince you to buy this damn thing? … an album many people are calling a “masterpiece” and the “best album in years”? The only person’s opinion about Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that truly matters is Sturgill Simpson’s papaw—the guy that introduces this album at the beginning of the first track. And by all accounts, he’s beaming about it. And so that’s all you really need to know. If more country artists used their grandparents as barometers on quality, I could probably board this URL up and do something that actually pays.
Just go and buy this record already. I really don’t have much else else to add, except to say that all these people reciting that Sturgill is like a modern Waylon Jennings aren’t listening beyond shallow observances based on his voice. And yes, lizard aliens and LSD are loosely mentioned in first song “Turtles All The Way Down”, and maybe similar cosmic themes are touched on here and there. But I don’t feel comfortable calling Metamodern Sounds a concept album. Sturgill actually touches on a wide variety of subjects during these ten tracks. “Long White Line” is very much a traditional country traveling song, though there may be some deeper underlying themes present there. And “Pan Bowl” is a very personal account of Sturgill’s hometown. Metamodern Sounds isn’t “out there,” it’s right where it’s supposed to be.
And to all these people saying that this album is one of the best they’ve heard in years, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you, but I still hear much room for improvement. Then again, I’ve also seen Sturgill’s talents on full display. Even Sturgill says in the song “Life of Sin”, “And the boys and me are still working on the sound.” Sturgill is just now starting to hit is stride people, trust me. I’m half convinced half the things he does are just to screw with all of us. Once you realize that, then you really begin to unlock the true wisdom and enjoyment in his music. And before you go saying this is one of the best country records ever, understand Sturgill will likely have many more to come.
Or hopefully he will. Just five weeks ago, I got a smattering of emails from a group of attendees at a Sturgill concert that said he’d announced on stage that he was quitting music. Game over. Something about having a baby on the way and needing to “do the right thing” and contemplating moving back out West to work for the railroad again. Everyone said the show was great, but that Sturgill was moody, and left without shaking any hands. The next day Sturgill was on the radio in Kentucky for a lengthy interview, and I listened in intently, a draft of “Sturgill Simpson Quits Music” already in the works. And of course, he mentioned not a word along those lines. A couple of days later, NPR is premiering his video for “Turtles All The Way Down”, and next thing you know you can’t launch a web browser without seeing his name somewhere. Signal the all clear. Maybe it was just Sturgill’s way of getting us to not pay so much attention.
There are a few things that bother me with this album. Though the live approach of cutting the record in a few days with the band all together makes for a good feel for your recordings, I could have also seen splurging just a little bit to procure better backing vocals for the chorus in “A Little Light” and for the harmony line on the hidden track “Pan Bowl”. And here we go again with an album that has this tape hiss hampering the clarity of the recording throughout. Yes I get it, this hiss is the side effect of the “warmth” you get from a non-digital approach, and you’d rather deal with it than the alternative: a dead sound. But we’re making lots of albums that I’m afraid the future will look back on and wonder why we purposely made sound bad. There’s a balance here between analog and clarity that is being missed by some of the best albums being put out today. When Sturgill’s voice soars when he takes a chorus to his highest register, I just want to hear it without it getting corroded. Sure maybe it’s wishful thinking to even entertain this train of thought, but commercial radio will never get behind that hissey, “classic” sound.
“It Ain’t All Flowers” is the song on this album you’re going to either love or hate. Though some may think they hear turntable action and wonder if Sturgill has gone all hip-hop on us, the effects are more the result of tape playback and other audio hijinks. Not to level an accusation of predictability at Sturgill, but second albums from artists tend to include a stretching of boundaries so that they don’t become boxed into any sound that they then must be beholden to for the rest of their career. I don’t have a problem personally with “It Ain’t All Flowers”, though it does stretch out a little too long to where it begins to feel a little self-indulgent. I’ve also experienced this song live (at least I think it was this one), and it blew the doors off of the version that made it onto this recording.
Another polarizing decision for some will be the inclusion of 80’s one hit wonder When In Rome’s song “The Promise”. This is Sturgill teaching us all a lesson, and one we should heed. Every great song has a missive that resonates universally, and genres are just the clothing that make those missives more compatible to our familiarities. Sturgill and his band do more justice to this song than the original does.
With Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson doesn’t just capture our ears, he captures our imaginations. However misguided the notion is, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point some true country artist is going to come along that is so good, it is going to tip the scales back in the right direction. What Metamodern Sounds does is it gives the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveys. It resolves that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound, but progressing forward.
Sturgill Simpson’s first album High Top Mountain was just establishing the baseline. He was half bored with it himself by the time it was released. I was disheartened when I heard the rumors that Sturgill Simpson might be quitting music, but I wasn’t surprised. I remember sitting in a packed church cathedral in downtown Austin in March as part of Sturgill’s official SXSW showcase. It was completely quiet during and in between songs aside for the roaring applause right after each song, and after watching Sturgill play the first half dozen songs of the set, I truly wondered to myself, “Do I even like country music?” I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling Sturgill Simpson was wondering the same thing. Then he started to play some of the songs from Metamodern Sounds, and the answer became emphatically, “Yes!”
We’re just going to have to accept that Sturgill Simpson is a weird one: moody, dark, yet slowly trending toward some version of eternal optimism and happiness even the most cheerful and balanced among us will likely never achieve. “A picture’s worth 1,000 words, but a word ain’t worth a dime,” is what Sturgill says in one of the best-written songs on the album called “Voices”, and I can’t help but feel the barb of that song is pointed at people like me that start of by telling you they have nothing to say, and eight paragraphs later, still don’t feel like they’ve given you a proper summation of their thoughts.
It’s not time yet to be making comparisons to Red Headed Stranger, or even to Phases & Stages. These are things only time and history can decide. Yet Metamodern Sounds in Country Music hasn’t even been out for a full day, and it has already reached that critical mass state any independent release can, where no matter where you turn, you find people singing its praises. Where does Metamodern Sounds, Sturgill Simpson, and country music go from here? We’ll have to see. But right now, right at this very moment, not some famous son, not some Americana artist you have to squint at to construe as country, but Sturgill Simpson, and Sturgill Simpson alone, defines the pinnacle, and what is relevant in the here and now of independent country music. And he’s done it from the sheer strength of this album.
Two guns up.
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