Album Review – Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide To Earth”


Don’t let anyone ever tell you that country music is a limiting format for expression, whether that’s Sturgill Simpson, Luke Bryan, some pointy-headed pontificate writing for a self-absorbed periodical, or anyone else. That’s absolute sophistry. Try telling that to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and the other overlords of Western Swing who took simple country stories and developed them into one of the most sophisticated and advanced forms of musical expression of the last 100 years. It even had the jassmasters of the era nodding with approval. Tell that to composers like Béla Fleck and Mark O’Connoer, who have re-witten the lesson books on what is possible through stringed instrumentation.

Tell that to an artist like John Hartford, who took what some believed to be an outmoded old-time form of music, and made it into a platform where virtually anything was sonically possible. Tell that to Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, and institutions like the Berklee College of Music that are developing bluegrass maestros that are as adept as any of the musicians manning critical spots in America’s topmost symphonies. Tell that to songwriters like Kris Kirstofferson and Guy Clark, who found brand new ways to express emotions that have been illustrated in the English language since the time of Shakespeare.

And tell that to Willie Nelson, Paul Kennerley, Marty Stuart, and Hank Williams III’s, who bristled at the idea that country music could only offer a limited experience, and energized by this challenge, bent their backs to constructing conceptualized albums that would not just set the pace for the possibility of expression in country music, but in all of music, and not always through layering on new and advanced forms of electronic instrumentation, or by employing horn and string sections, but through simplifying and stripping down the recording and production process to where nothing stood in the way of the raw inspiration for the music, and the listener’s ear.

The idea that country music is somehow a limited musical format is an illusion, and an excuse. Instrumentation is just the clothing; it’s what you say, and how you say it that counts. The only true restrictions a country music artist or any musician faces are those they put on themselves.

There are two reasons why artists may find the recognized confines of country music as constricting. The first comes from a performer’s motivation to make country music an element of great commercial enterprise by reaching the widest possible audience. And to do so, they must borrow or steal influences from other genres to appeal to as many ears as possible. The other reason is boredom.

sturgill-simpson-a-sailors-guide-to-earthSturgill Simpson was bored with country music by the time his debut album High Top Mountain hit the shelves. If you didn’t see this, you weren’t paying attention. This is not a criticism of Sturgill necessarily. It was out of that boredom that his second album and breakout release Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was born. He wanted to stretch the boundaries of country and do something fresh to keep himself interested, while still remaining attached to country’s roots. His third release, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, stretches those boundaries even further, and then goes beyond them.

What has been one of the most revered artists in the independent and traditional country realm in the last few years has now become one of the most polarizing, as we have seen happen time and time again with predecessors in that position. Sturgill Simpson has made an album that is not particularly country, but just as much as the music itself, it has been the communication surrounding the album that has put him at critical odds with many who once championed him. Sturgill Simpson made himself patently clear about wanting to make an authentic country record when it came to High Top Mountain. The talk surrounding A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was about synthesizers, an appreciation for Skrillex, how (former) producer Dave Cobb thought the new record would piss some people off, and how Sturgill didn’t really consider himself a country music artist anymore. This wasn’t speculation, this was what was coming out ahead of the release from those involved directly.

Then when the first single from the new album “Brace For Impact” was released, and the degree of country-ness of the track was questioned, Sturgill reversed course somewhat and said that no matter what, when he opens his mouth, it will be country.

Song Review Sturgill Simpson’s “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)”

But it’s not Sturgill’s voice, or even the limited amount of old-school moog synthesizer that made it onto the final mixes of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth that has some country purists up in arms, it’s the presence of the Dap-Kings horn section on a good half of the tracks. You can’t have saxophone and horn sections in country music, right? But remember how this conversation started a few paragraphs ago, citing Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys? Even some of the most early incarnations of country music featured horn sections, and saxophones specifically. Bob Wills loved hillbilly and Western music, but he also loved the big band sounds of the era, and saw how horns could bring country music the respect it deserved.

For those that say a saxophone has no place in country music, they clearly haven’t seen Merle Haggard perform in the last 35 years. In fact maybe Sturgill got the idea from Merle, who he’d become very close with prior to Merle’s recent passing.

The problem with the horns on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is not their presence, it’s how they feel just a bit superfluous. If you envision horns on a particular song and have the budget to spring for them, why not? But here the splurge feels a little forced and self-indulgent. Today in the roots and “Americana” realm, bringing horns into the mix is not taking a risk or making a statement, it’s about the most conformist and trend-chasing thing you can do. That’s not to say this was Sturgill’s motivation, but if you’ve been listening to the records coming from his former producer Dave Cobb, you’ll know at least some horns are expected on your record these days. Similarly, some of the songs on A  Sailor’s Guide to Earth feel like they’re in that really trendy Muscle Shoals style that everybody in east Nashville and beyond is falling over themselves to emulate, for whatever reason. And others feel too busy because the horns are forced into the mix, while the words and original melody get buried.

sturgill-simpsonSlapping a genre tag on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is complicated, and this is likely the culprit for Sturgill being a little wishy washy on if he considers the album country himself. There are a couple of songs you would call country before you would call them anything else, and the steel guitar work of Dan Dugmore is featured throughout this record, even though it doesn’t always sound like a traditional steel. So ultimately, if you truly are a music lover, you have to set all the arguments of genre aside, and enjoy the album for what it is, because the genre of the album is too nebulous to use this as the basis for a dissenting viewpoint. If Sturgill had defiantly called this album country from the very beginning, few would have questioned him and this wouldn’t even be a discussion.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a record Sturgill Simpson wrote for his young son who was born right as Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was entering its “release cycle” as they say in the business. You don’t need anyone to tell you what the songs are about on this album; Sturgill pretty much spells it right out for you. He uses the record to directly impart wisdom and knowledge to his young son, as well as delve into a bit of his own history as a former member of the Navy, and his perils with drugs.

The personal nature of this record is almost startling. Sturgill can be hard to understand when singing, but if you lay out the lyric sheets to the songs, they read like the most intimate poems from a father to his son, and are nearly fearless in how they bare Sturgill’s feelings of guilt when leaving home, and missing out on important milestones in his young son’s life. This theme is reinforced when Sturgill re-imagines a song from his first band Sunday Valley called “Sarah” about similar guilt, only towards his lover.

A cynic might say that much of the writing on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a little too direct. There’s not a lot of subtly to this record. At certain times, Sturgill is telling his son to stay in school and stay off drugs, and to make sure to live for today. At moments the language can feel a little bit trite. There’s just not much left to the imagination. The story is not allowed to meld to the individual perspective of the listener, or the room to blossom into one of those “ah ha” moments like you might experience when listening to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

There’s a time in every first parent’s life when starring at their offspring, they go through this complete reorganization of thought where they put themselves second. It was in the midst of these moments that A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was written and recorded. But that moment in most people’s lives has been so editorialized in life, it can feel cliche, or even self-centered to talk about about it, at least with the abundance found on this record.

If this is a concept album, and we can only assume it so since Sturgill is so insistent that the tracks be listened to consecutively, it may have made the message to everyone but his son a little more effective if Sturgill had told the story of a sailor imparting wisdom to his son in third person for example, or found some other way to let the imagination thrive with the words.

Similarly, Sturgill has a couple of moments of lashing out at war and the infiltration of technology into our lives that also could have benefited from a more nuanced approach.

Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq & Iran
North Korea, tell me where does it end
The bodies keep piling up every day
How many more are they gonna send
They send our sons and daughters off to die for some oil and to control the heroin
Son I hope you don’t grow up believing that you have to be a puppet to be a man

Are we at war with North Korea or Iran? Is the conflict in Syria about heroin or oil? The “war sucks” message, as well as other statements about how love is the answer to life, and how reality is just a dream (broached on Metamodern in ample doses too) lack a little of the poetic expression or realism that would make these proverbs more welcomed and resonant in the listener.

But the message and writing of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth remains much more a plus than a minus. It’s in the musical decisions that battle lines will be drawn by some. Beyond the discussion of the horns, it’s the dolphin cries on “Breaker’s Roar” (likely done through guitar effect), or the moog-driven dissolve at the end of “Brace For Impact” that will have certain country fans up and arms and screaming “See!” after they feel abandoned by one of their heroes once again. Overall though, Sturgill, acting as both songwriter and producer, did an admiral job creating a seamless, involved, and enchanting listening journey that carries on a cohesive mood and theme, and awakens the imagination to offer enhancement to the messages he looks to convey.

For example on the song “Keep It Between The Lines,” it starts off with sailors at sea in some sort of rhythmic chant, that then that chant gets translated to the horn section in the body of the song, while little percussive bells indicative of seafaring scenes reinforce the vibe of being out on the ocean. It’s moments like this that make it hard to second guess Sturgill’s decision to produce the album himself.

How individuals perceive A Sailor’s Guide to Earth almost precedes the album, and has almost become as important as the music itself, however unfairly so. Sturgill Simpson is a hot hand right now, and so everyone wants to assign philosophical ideals to Sturgill’s creative expressions as reinforcement or validation of their own. Rednecks want to point to the horns to prove it’s not country. NPR wants to take a slightly off understanding of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” as an anti-gun stance. Rolling Stone may have the most quizzical assertion, when reviewer Will Hermes said about the final song “Call To Arms,” “The song storms through a spangled rave-up worthy of Elvis Presley’s TCB band, with verses that suggest Waylon Jennings on a hip-hop kick.”

Once again someone can’t help but shallowly compare Sturgill to Waylon, and how the hip-hop thing gets worked in there, I don’t know. I guess because it’s not entirely country or done in a heavy tone, we have to call it hip-hop? This is the problem with passing the Sturgill Simpson assignment to hip-hop and indie rock reviewers, which happens more than actual country reviewers giving their opinions. With an elementary understanding of Sturgill’s music and country in general, some of today’s journalists have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. That’s where the Waylon comparison’s come from, because they know nothing else to compare Sturgill to, and how all the “country savior” talk got stoked, stetting some listeners up with unfair expectations of what Sturgill and this album should be.

Song Review Sturgill Simpson’s “In Bloom” (Nirvana Cover)

But after all the ridiculous talk that Sturgill was going to go EDM, that he was going to completely abandon his country roots, and that he had sold out now that he’s signed to Atlantic Records—all of these concerns seem silly after listening to the album. At the same time, so will many of the vociferous accolades that you will see rolling in that mark out decades since a comparable record was released to the public. Both of these estimations come from mood swings and first impressions, when ultimately A Sailor’s Guide to Earth sits down in a well rested spot as a pretty cool conceptualized album with a little bit of country on it, and a little bit of everything else.

Will it reshape the country genre, similar to how Chris Stapleton’s Traveller has done? Will it win any mainstream radio play, or be considered for CMA Awards? I would be very surprised if it scores on any of these accounts. It may not even chart in country music after we witnessed Green River Ordinance get jobbed earlier this year. The album’s favor will likely be found on end-of-year lists, and perhaps on the Grammy Awards’ pre-telecast. But A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is not a game changer for anything or anyone except Sturgill Simpson.

So no, Sturgill Simpson will not be a country music savior. That ship, as they say, has sailed. And had a long time ago if you had been paying attention.

But A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a good album, a valiant follow up to Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and is yet another solid offering in an impressive and growing musical career for one of America’s and roots music’s most unique, interesting, and diverse artists.

1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up (8/10)

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