Album Review: Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide To Earth
By Ian Bremner
With a voice like Sturgill Simpson, a lot of people would willingly listen to him sing the alphabet for 30 minutes. Thankfully, for those of us who have come to adore everything Sturgill Simpson in the last 2-3 years, there are an awful lot of stories that come with that southern croon.
The 37-year old Kentucky native came from making waves as an underground country singer with High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, to navigating real waves with his third album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. Reaching this level of success in his “later years,” as far as the music industry is concerned, has allowed him to view his music and newfound celebrity with gratitude and a unique perspective. Sturgill has been ignored by Music Row in Nashville because he found a way to reach the masses without their help. He has spent decades playing in smoky bars to empty rooms with his band, Sunday Valley. He has worked on the railroad. He has been in the Navy. He has literal Sea Stories.
Signing with a major label has its pros and cons and undoubtedly sparks skepticism from longtime fans. Sturgill Simpson proves, however, that with a creative brain and “take no bullshit” attitude, a bigger budget just opens up more opportunities to let your pipe-dream ideas come to life. You want horns on the record? Get the Dap-Kings! You want to do a Nirvana song? Do it.
Most people love to label him as the acid-taking cowboy or the savior to “outlaw country,” but comparing him to any contemporaries or country legends is a slope as slippery as the bow of a battleship. He may as well be the Kendrick Lamar of country music. Throw out any preconceived notions, prepare to be surprised and trust that they know what they’re doing.
Conceptually an ode to his newborn child, A Sailors Guide To Earth was written in short, poetry-format on the road during the seemingly endless Metamodern tours. This record is the first without cohort/super-producer Dave Cobb and Sturgill took over the reins. He knew what he wanted to say with each song and how he wanted it to sound. It was now a matter of pulling it all together. Turns out, 4 days is all he needed. The album plays like a life lesson to his now 2-year old son. The first track, Welcome To Earth (Pollywog), quite literally could be the first words spoken to him, “hello my son.”
The 9-track, 39 minute album is a sonic trek through life: starting with a young child, growing into angsty teenager (cue the Nirvana), and ending with a roaring Call To Arms against the anti-war, anti-conformity, anti-bullshit that plagues the news cycles in 2016. Appropriately, the transitions of seagulls and buoy dings between songs only add to the listening voyage. Though the lush production of strings and horns may catch the ear of his young son now, it might take a while for the overall sentiment to sink in.
Like most “guides,” A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, lays out some rules for the road, some tips for the trade and wise advice from someone who’s been through it all. Interpreting the map is a different ballgame, and one to be learned on your own. As Sturgill claims in Keep Between The Lines, “do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done, it don’t have to be like father like son.”
Fans looking for a Metamodern II will be forced to keep looking, just as they’ll be waiting around a long time for Sailors Guide II. He made his country record. He made his psychedelic record. Now, here lies his tide-riding soul record. For Sturgill Simpson, life moves on, the ship sails and we can only hope to keep riding whatever wave he is on.