Album / Movie Review – Sturgill Simpson’s “Sound & Fury”

Add Sturgill Simpson to the list of things in society that are extremely polarizing, right up there with politics, religion, LeBron James, pumpkin spice, and whatever else people get worked up about, with half the world professing something or someone is utter and unequivocal garbage, while the other half can’t contain their enthusiasm, showering whatever it is with undeserved vociferous praise. Meanwhile the truth of the matter, as with many things, lies somewhere in the middle, especially when it comes to these contentious topics. Yet the middle is the most dangerous space to inhabit of all. It’s lonely, and bereft of allies. Refusing to take a side is tantamount to crossing swords with both, while your assured to be labeled as weak and uncommitted.

If you’re a country music fan, you have every right to be disappointed that Sturgill’s Sound & Fury not only doesn’t include a shred of country musically, in some ways it feels like a rebuke of it. This is not being closed minded. This is being a country music fan. It’s also being a Sturgill Simpson fan. You followed him from his early days with Sunday Valley, or from his first couple of solo records when he was country. You gave your loyalty to this guy, spent money on T-shirts and vinyl recordings, not to mention concert tickets and travel. You believed in him as one who was helping to return country music back to its substance and roots. He spoke out for Merle Haggard. He told the country establishment to kiss off. Now you cue up Sound & Fury, and it just sounds like a bunch of overdriven and electronic noise that you can’t make heads or tails of. You’re heartbroken, and feel betrayed.

Some are arguing that it’s the job of fans to follow their favorite artists no matter where their supposed creativity takes them, and label people selfish for wanting Sturgill or anyone else to make the kind of music that made them a fan in the first place. But it’s not the job of a listener to follow the whims of an artist. It’s an artist’s job to entertain and inspire people. It’s artists who engage in an elective occupation, and enjoy the fruits of those labors if they’re successful. That doesn’t mean artists should be hemmed in by people’s expectations, or the appointed rules of a given genre. They have the freedom do whatever they want. But fans have the freedom to not like it as well, and not be rebuked as closed minded or “purists” just because one of their favorite artists goes in such a dramatically different direction, it’s virtually unrecognizable from previous efforts.

But music is music, and no matter where anyone’s loyalties lie when it comes to genre or taste, we’re all music fans first, or at least we should be. Sturgill Simpson has been broadcasting for years leading to the release of Sound & Fury that it wouldn’t be a country record. There’s nothing wrong with music that isn’t country. There something wrong with calling something country when it clearly isn’t. Sturgill Simpson was bored with country and doesn’t want to be a karaoke machine playing the same songs the same way. This is completely understandable, yet still a somewhat selfish attitude. Look how many artists and performers spend decades playing the same songs, and not complaining about it because they know it’s a privilege to play music at all, especially at the level Sturgill Simpson enjoys. The people going to work every day in cubicle farms and factories don’t get to follow whatever fancy floats in their head.

The ultimate problem with Sound & Fury is not that it isn’t country. It’s that it just doesn’t sound good. Forget the hip approach in East Nashville and elsewhere to make records sound like they’re recorded on antiquated equipment under the misguided theory this instills them with the same soul of all those old classic titles. The reason older records sound so bad is because they didn’t have better recording options. As soon as they did, they took advantage of them. Even the sweaty sound of something like Exile On Main Street by The Rolling Stones was more an accident of approach than a decision on aesthetics.

Sound & Fury takes the concern for the sound quality of contemporary recordings to an entirely new level. It’s ragged out and overblown to the point of nearing the cusp of being unlistenable, and crosses over that line in segments. Most country fans listen to rock as well, but not rock that sounds like this. You have to be into fey indie rock—projects like Alvvays or something—to find this level of degraded audio quality on purpose.

And those that would take this assessment of the sound of Sound & Fury as unfair and biting, they might be missing the underlying point and expression at the heart of this album, not vice versa. Sound & Fury is a fuck off record. It was made in a motor inn in Michigan of all places (no offense, Michigan). It’s 36 hours of wanking off into inferior equipment (or what sounds like it), then mixed and mastered to sound even more like shit. Part of this is to attempt to capture the rawness of the emotions and the performances, and present a dystopian aesthetic. But arguably Sturgill Simpson wanted to tick off certain demographics of listeners with this record, and so he baked his intentions right into the recordings. Those pissed off by Sound & Fury shouldn’t be rebuked. Perhaps they’re doing their job, and reacting just as Sturgill Simpson had preordained them to.

What is Sound & Fury, ultimately? It’s a classic breakup record. Except Sturgill’s breakup isn’t with a wife or girlfriend. It’s with the music industry. As the last album Sturgill Simpson was contractually obligated to make, he turned in a discordant and serrated piece of noise on purpose. Jilted, deceived, lied to and used-feeling, Sturgill Simpson is flipping the proverbial bird to it all in Sound & Fury. Like he says in the single from the record, “You’ve done me wrong, so here’s your song. Now sing along.” 

So the next question when taking into consideration Sturgill Simpson’s modus operandi here is if the poor audio quality can somehow be forgiven, or even proffered up as a brilliant stroke of performance art? For some, perhaps it can be. But for those who appreciate the art of music for many of its aesthetically-pleasing qualities, it’s very difficult. The dystopian approach is overdone, and by a decisive margin. Even if you don’t mind how Sound & Fury sounds, or even if you enjoy it, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be better with cleaner signals.

Criticizing music is not a completely subjective practice. There are certain established benchmarks and gradients that can be used to asses the quality of a given piece of music beyond the intangibles that reviewers and general listeners call upon that align more with taste. What is the quality of the recordings, and of the mixing and mastering? How is the instrumentation and composition, and the songwriting? Sturgill Simpson is a great guitar player, and is toting around a band of brilliant musicians. But for most of Sound & Fury, they’re resigned to playing simple arrangements that are more about intimidating you with muscle as opposed to wowing you with musicality. Even though the music is raw and harsh, some of the melodies are quite simple, and certain synthesizer parts feel pretty cliché and rehashed-sounding. “A Good Look” sounds like a disco song, like Sturgill Simpson’s version on “High Horse” by Kacey Musgraves. Though again, maybe this is the intention.

What impresses you at nearly every turn in the record is the writing. Sturgill could bring himself to turning in something that sounded harsh and unforgiving, but he wasn’t going to slack on the message he had to deliver. That is the underlying point of it all. Not since the most potent moments of Sturgill’s Magnum Opus, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, has his writing felt so inspired. The best Sturgill Simpson is an angry Sturgill Simpson. Usually this is born out in the raw abandon of his guitar playing. But sensing astutely that the days of the guitar Gods have long passed and we now live in the era of the song, this is where Sturgill channeled his anger, and lays waste one track after another to the rabid hypocrisy, back biting, and other scandalous practices that permeate the music industry from stem to stern. With all do respect to the sweet sentiments Sturgill penned to his son in the Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, it is in this latest work where he achieves, or at least renews his poetic apex.

But what good is this achievement if you can’t hear what he’s saying, either due to the flatly inferior quality of the audio signals that render the words indecipherable for the majority of the record, or if the folks most needing to heed these messages aren’t paying attention because they’re turned off with the whole audio approach overall? For years Saving Country Music has been telling the Sturgill Simpson detractors complaining about his voice to find a Q-tip and shut up. But with Sound & Fury, concerns about the incoherence of Sturgill Simpson are completely fair and warranted. These nine tracks (the first is an instrumental) will give Genius a good workout, but folks are encouraged to hunt down the lyrics, especially if they’re skeptical of this effort, because they’re worth it.

And everyone should seek out the companion anime film on Netflix as well, which might be Sound & Fury‘s saving grace. At first it’s a little concerning how the film employs various mediums, making you wonder if it will fail to present a cohesive message. The film follows the album exactly, and each song plays out like a vignette in the movie. Some of segments are done in more artistic versions of anime. Others are done in more realistic CGI, and even in live film, not animation at all. Where Sound & Fury the album lacks an amount of contrast and color due to the caustic nature of the recordings, the movie re-instills these elements through its visuals, and at times its stunning imagination. Where the album took days to make, the movie took over a year, and is the reason Sound & Fury was delayed so long before the official release.

The album and the film were not a collaborative effort in the traditional sense. Sturgill did not write Sound & Fury to turn it into an anime film initially. He approached an anime artist to perhaps make a video or two, and the idea to make an entire film was hatched. This put an especially difficult onus on the filmmakers to do justice to this Grammy-winning American’s highly-anticipated album. Though a country music critic is probably ill equipped to critique an anime effort, it felt highly-enjoyable and involved, with the way the ending played out (no spoilers) worth sticking through the whole thing, and a dedicated appearance of a futuristic Nashville a good Easter egg to watch out for. About the only weird part was during the aforementioned song “A Good Look,” where the hero of the film—a sports car-driving Samurai—dances in pop choreography with her enemies. It felt out-of-place in an otherwise engrossing visual work, with the rebuke of the shallowness of the music industry palpable, but poorly placed in the plot.

The ultimate assessment of a country music critic attempting to asses the validity and appeal of a crunchy and loud rock record and accompanying animated film is very mixed. Undoubtedly the writing of Sound & Fury is worthy of praise, especially from an outlet founded to expose the ills of the music industry as a cornerstone of its mission. It’s also important to note that the more you listen, the more you begin to crave the attitude and energy that Sound & Fury affords. Perhaps this is a musical version of Stockholm Syndrome, but subsequent listens are advised, especially among the most skeptical.

And for those hung up on the fact that Sound & Fury isn’t country, they’re missing something important here. Multiple tracks on the album are country songs, just with a different sonic treatment. This is especially true for “Last Man Standing” and “Mercury in Retrograde,” but really you could say this about most of the songs on Sound & Fury. Sturgill Simpson once said he could never sing anything but a country song, because that’s what comes out when he opens his mouth. Even when he purposely tried to make something else with Sound & Fury, his country roots still poked out for those attentive enough to listen for them. So the next question is, why didn’t he just make a country record? Would the songs be presented better in that context, and reach more people? The assessment of this set of ears is, “Yes.”

Sturgill Simpson will make another country record. Just like he told us Sound & Fury wouldn’t be one, he’s assured us a future one will be. And don’t be surprised if bluegrass is the aesthetic he chooses, at least at some point. But for now, Sound & Fury it is, and a guy that once carried the torch and hope for a country music revolution has revolutionized himself in a completely different direction and left country to fend for itself.

Doesn’t this feel like the way it has always been for traditional and independent country fans in the modern era? Jamey Johnson gave us great hope, and then quit writing and releasing records. Shooter Jennings carried the promise of the Outlaw spirit from his father, and then delved into electronica on his own in the album Black Ribbons. Hank3 was supposed to be the man to lead country music out of its malaise, and is now going on half a decade in his disappearing act. The Turnpike Troubadours were the group that could finally create mainstream appeal in independent country, and then Evan Felker hit a rough patch and they were put on hiatus. And people wonder why artists like Whitey Morgan and Cody Jinks receive so much undying loyalty. It remains to be seen what heights they will ascend to. But at least their fans will never feel abandoned. That’s why they’d run through a wall for these two men.

But just assessing Sound & Fury against other records released on September 27th, 2019—including HOME by Billy Strings that is a true effort at evolving country forward while still being tethered to its roots, or Jon Pardi’s Heartache Medication that found a way to be stone cold country in the mainstream, or Michaela Anne’s Desert Dove where such love and care went into each individual recording—Sound & Fury just feels haphazard. But at the same time, underneath all the noise of Sound & Fury, there is still something worthy of attention in the poetry Sturgill Simpson sows, while the noise strangely grows on you and gets the blood pumping, especially with the aid of the accompanying film.

Like so many of the impassioned issues that roil society in the present day, we’re often too emotionally attached to them to give an accurate assessment in the here and now of their overall efficacy. Only time will bear out if our enthusiasm or hatred was warranted, or ill-placed. Strugill Simpson’s Sound & Fury seems especially prone to be worthy of this future re-assessment, and a mixed review is not an attempt to dodge the bullets coming from both sides, but an honest take of a very involved, and frankly, convoluted project.

The man who once found a consensuses among country music’s independent fandom is now as polarizing of a character as any, and so is his new album. Even if Sound & Fury is not perfect for you, it all seems strangely perfect for 2019.

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One Gun Up for strong songwriting and great vision via the anime film.

One Gun Down for an ill-advised production approach, and an overall poor sound.

5/10