Review: Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth

Whether by Simpson’s own design or in spite of it, 'A Sailor’s Guide to Earth' is ahead of its time
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DESPITE HOW HARD it may be to believe, Sturgill Simpson actually has a life extracurricular of his hard-hitting, no-bullshit reputation as country music’s most unique artist. He has a wife and a son, and apparently, leaving them to tour was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make.

“I feel like all this is happening,” Simpson admitted during a podcast interview with Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett. “[And] the only place I wanna be is at home.”

This no-doubt plays a huge role in why Simpson’s songs are so powerful and evocative.

For the record, Sturgill Simpson never set out to change country music. He never anticipated garnering street titles like “Country Music’s Messiah,” and he certainly never expected sophomore LP Metamodern Sounds in Country Music to necessitate such a rigorous tour schedule in support of it. But when you possess a voice as iconic and viscerally affective as Simpson’s, you would have been dealt this hand eventually. And he’s handled the journey remarkably well thus far, despite spending an unexpected amount of time fighting the urge to just go home.

In the event that this whole backstory somehow eluded you, here’s a snapshot of Sturgill Simpson’s footprint over the past two years: In 2014, Metamodern Sounds redefined the anatomical construct of country music. This happened because Simpson did something only a handful of successful Nashville country artists have thought to do: He drew upon actually meaningful experiences, and he injected personal philosophies into his storyline. So instead of painting lurid sonic portraits of life on a farm or the size of his 4x4’s tires or his affinity for shotgunning Bud Heavy from a tailgate, he illustrates his path to spiritual enlightenment as being paved with psychedelic drugs. He’s an equal-opportunity believer, so he ruminates on the more ethereal aspects of spirituality as a whole, rather than the divisively concrete ones. Metamodern Sounds lead single “Living the Dream”, features lines like, “I don’t have to do a goddamn thing but sit around and wait to die,” and suddenly you realize Simpson has a macabre sense of humor. On the surface, the tracks that materialized may resemble the Bakersfield-meets-Nashville vibe that influenced country music all those decades ago, but that’s just about where the similarities end.

All of that to say this: Sturgill Simpson is as much an immersive experience as the acid trips that laid the foundation for Metamodern Sounds. So when positing which direction Simpson would take on his third LP, no one even knew where to start.

Contrary to the way Simpson’s career has played out over the past two years, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth feels more like the album he’s wanted to write for as long as the public has known his name. His third full-length in as many years, A Sailor’s Guide is a dedication to his 2-year-old son, and it operates—somewhat obviously—as a pragmatic series of advisory letters to aid the process of growing up and discovering the world. Simpson may be an esteemed writer and top-notch performer, but A Sailor’s Guide takes massive strides to show that no title on earth will ever suit him as finely as “father” does.

And fatherly advice has never sounded this gorgeous; certain moments on A Sailor’s Guide are sensitive enough to feel physically adjacent to them. Opening track “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” delivers Sturgill’s heartfelt hello, transitioning from an Orbison-esque slow-build to an emotive honky-tonk shuffle. One track later, “Breakers Roar” returns to that same mellow saunter as Simpson recants countless nights away from a son who gets older despite his absence. For a man so qualified by his rawness, you’ve never witnessed Simpson at the mercy of his emotions like he is on “Breakers Roar”.

At his core, however, Simpson’s still a fun-loving player and writer. “Keep It Between the Lines” is the first time on A Sailor’s Guide where he cuts loose from the burden and offers the kind of mutinous wisdom you’d expect to hear from a weathered grandfather. Aphorisms like “Motor oil is motor oil/Just keep the engine clean,” and “Do as I say/Don’t do as I’ve done/It don’t have to be ‘like father, like son’” run rampant throughout “Keep It Between the Lines”, instilling just enough elbow grease to reveal trace amounts of Nashville-born attitude.

But make no mistake: A Sailor’s Guide is a clear departure from the country-leaning propensities present on Metamodern Sounds. In fact, the only tangible thing connecting Simpson’s third LP to the genre is Simpson himself, making A Sailor’s Guide a crystalline example of his versatility and range as an artist. Tracks like “Sea Stories”, lead single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”, “Call to Arms”, and his near-perfect cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”, drop Simpson into a similar camp to the ones M.C. Taylor and Matthew Houck currently occupy. It’s a brilliant look for such a convictive performer.

While some may attribute this transition to Sturgill’s own preferences as an artist, others will have a hard time overlooking the personnel changes that went down throughout the creation process. This is Simpson’s first album not produced by Nashville legend Dave Cobb. A bittersweet departure, given that Simpson himself was behind the board for the whole album, but when one door shuts, another one opens. Sturgill enlisted the help of the incendiary Dap Kings to add crucial and indemnifying depth to certain tracks—most notably, “Keep It Between the Lines”, which would have stood just fine on its own but instead rises to cosmic heights, thanks in large part to some sinister horn licks courtesy of the Kings.

Whether by Simpson’s own design or in spite of it, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is ahead of its time. Perhaps it’s due to his insistence on playing the game by his own rules, but at least compared to the industry standard, A Sailor’s Guide feels at least five years too early. Artists spend decades working up to the level of instrumental variety and emotional awareness that Simpson seems to comprehend at his core, so it feels inherently wrong to be experiencing something so tender and well-rounded this early in his career. But it’s not wrong. It’s incredibly right, because A Sailor’s Guide is an incredible album. So the best thing we can do is push off, set sail, lean back and enjoy the ride. A