Photo (c) Reto Sterchi
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Putting descriptive tags on music is usually a problematic undertaking. While it might be necessary to have categories to organize and describe different musical genres and artists, confining music into neat groups can be a futile exercise.
Sturgill Simpson is one such artist. He’s considered a country musician, perhaps the result of the Kentucky twang in his voice. But as his new album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth will attest, he is so much more.
His fans already knew this. Since emerging in 2013 with his self-financed debut album, High Top Mountain, Simpson has pushed against the confines of the categories he’s been placed in. With his acclaimed second album, the Grammy-nominated Metamodern Sounds In Country Music (2014), he gave those classifications a hard shove.
Now he is bursting through genres, blurring the lines separating country, rock, soul, folk and more.
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, Simpson’s first release for a major label and his first that is self-produced, is rooted in country traditions. From there, he paints his vision with soulful horns (played by members of the Dap-Kings), strings, and even bagpipes. The presentation of the album, both visually in its artwork and audibly in its construction, are nods to the conceptual thread running through it, demanding that it be listened to as a whole and viewed as one continuous work. Songs seamlessly segue into one another, and ambient sounds create a sonically unified soundscape. And then there’s the cerebral cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” right in the middle.
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is structured as a sailor’s letter to his family back home. Simpson’s inspiration came from the birth of his son, and it’s this paternal outlook on life that fueled his creativity. The theme was also spurred on by a real letter that Simpson’s grandfather wrote to his family when he was potentially facing death in World War II, as well as Simpson’s own experiences at sea while in the Navy.
On the album’s opener, “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog),” Simpson greets the arrival of his newborn son. The song starts as a somber, string-laden melodramatic ballad before erupting into an R&B-drenched stomper, punctuated by horns. So goes the rest of this rewardingly rich album: “Keep It Between The Lines” is a groovy bit of fatherly advice, suggesting, “Keep your eyes on the prize and everything will be fine / Long as you stay in school, stay off the hard stuff, And keep it between the lines.” Later he declares, “Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done / It don’t have to be like father, like son.”
“Sea Stories” documents Simpson’s naval experience. “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)” is a rocker demanding that life be lived to its fullest. “All Around You” is a slow bit of comforting soul, reminding us that the bond between loved ones is unbreakable and forever. At the end of the album is the politically driven “Call To Arms,” a fast-paced bit of rock and roll that warns of the negative impact that government, war and society can have on life. Simpson’s concerns about the future of this world are reflected throughout the album.
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is a deeply personal, lyrically straightforward statement from one of this country’s top young singer-songwriters. Simpson has already made it clear that he cannot be easily pigeonholed, while deep down at his core, he is a country boy with something to say.