Review: Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic, 2016)


A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the third album from Sturgill Simpson, is a major-label, big-budget outing with sweeping, cinematic strings and driving horns that call to mind both The Memphis Horns and Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangements for The Band. It’s also an ambitious song cycle featuring careful transitions from one song to the next. A record like this just doesn’t get made anymore. And a one-time industry outsider like ol’ Sturgill definitely doesn’t get to make a record like this anymore. But here we are.

Simpson always tells the press he hails from southeast Kentucky, which is only partially true. He was born in the southeast part of the state, but he attended high school in Woodford County, right outside of the big city of Lexington. His early band Sunday Valley was based out of Lexington for close to a decade before ensconcing in the Music City of Nashville, Tennessee and promptly disbanding.

After Sunday Valley parted ways, Simpson recorded and released his solo debut, 2013’s High Top Mountain on his own record label. With the release of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music a year later in 2014, Simpson would find himself garnering praise from such big name publications as The New York Times and Rolling Stone and making no fewer than five late night talk show appearances. The major labels came calling soon after.

The speed at which Simpson ascended to the national stage was surprising; however, it’s doubly surprising that a guy who was releasing his own records and throwing a middle finger to the establishment would end up on a major label, making this kind of record. I was in Lexington in the mid-‘00s and saw his old band Sunday Valley around half a dozen times. At the time, they were just a local band. Don’t get me wrong; they were the best local band I’ve ever seen. They would sell out a room and get the place going in a way some national acts struggled to do in Lexington in those days.

I should note that by mentioning that I saw Sturgill back in his Sunday Valley days, I’m not trying to offer up some dumb hipster aphorism about how I liked this guy better before he was famous. Being a fan of an artist before they hit the national stage is merely a coincidence of location. And while I loved Sunday Valley, I find Sturgill’s solo output far more interesting.

I saw Sturgill perform the penultimate track on A Sailor’s Guide nine years ago at a Sunday Valley show in a tiny rock club in downtown Lexington that has since been demolished to make way for a luxury hotel. A video actually exists of Sturgill’s performance of “Oh, Sarah” from that night:

Sunday Valley were shit-kickers who called to mind Lucero. They created and demanded a rowdy atmosphere. So, when Sturgill took a break from the boot-stomping boogie to play a gentle, earnest ballad about love in the face of personal burdens, it resonated doubly. The cut of “Oh, Sarah” on the new album finds Sturgill backed by a full orchestra. I think I prefer the stripped down version of the song. It’s a song in which the narrator puts his vulnerabilities on full display, and a fuller arrangement runs the risk of turning raw emotion into saccharine schmaltz. Luckily, ol’ Sturgill’s vocal performance, a reserved, crooning performance from a guy who can belt with the best of them, keeps the new cut of “Sarah” from passing over into schmaltz.

Putting a full orchestra on the record was undeniably a risk, but I can’t fault Sturgill for swinging for the fences on his major-label debut. He could’ve sat back and given people another record that sounded just like Metamodern, but instead he’s stretching out, experimenting, and offering his audience something new.

While it’s surprising to see Simpson wind up on the same label that at one time had ‘70s titans like CSNY and Zeppelin on their roster, it’s not altogether unfitting. After all, the scale and scope of this new record closely parallels what big-name rock acts like The Who and Pink Floyd were trying to do with rock operas in the ‘70s. And let’s not forget that Simpson wrote and performed the theme song for the HBO series Vinyl, which details the excess and bombast (and cocaine) of the early ‘70s music industry.

A Sailor’s Guide is a song cycle that is meant to represent a letter from a first-time father to his newborn son. Throughout the album, the narrator proffers words of wisdom and caution to his son. It’s a meditation on American masculinity and the cultural and geopolitical circumstances that demand male absence. The themes of this record are not a far cry from those of the great rock operas of the ‘70s.

The album’s first single, “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”, also sounds like a castaway from the ‘70s. With Simpson’s Kentucky twang cast against slide guitar, organ, spacy synthesizers, and a propulsive rock beat, the song sounds like it’s being broadcast in from some bizarro universe in which Duane and Gregg Allman ended up in Pink Floyd.

However, I don’t think Simpson is simply an avatar for a brand of rock that has gone the way of the dinosaur. I’m not sure that the music on A Sailor’s Guide even constitutes what we would traditionally think of as rock. The word “country” is in the title of his previous album, and thanks to lyrical references to psychedelic drugs and “reptile aliens made of light,” Simpson has oft found himself branded as an “outlaw country” act. But his new record doesn’t really read as country either.

Instead, by blending influences and ideas, Simpson has created something wholly unique. The album’s first track, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” perfectly encapsulates the amalgam of genres that defines the album. The song begins with a concert hall piano and swelling strings as Simpson sings about his love for his newborn son. Then the song turns on a dime: horns, courtesy of the Dap-Kings (whom Simpson hired on the strength of the work with, of all people, Amy Winehouse), and drums kick in, and Simpson belts, “And if sometimes daddy has to go away/ Please don’t think it means I don’t love you.”

The Dap-Kings are also prominently featured on “Keep It Between the Lines,” “All Around You,” and “Call to Arms,” in all of which the narrator directly addresses his son. “Between the Lines” is a funky number on which the narrator advises his son, “If there’s any doubt, there is no doubt/ The gut don’t never lie/ And the only word you’ll ever need to know in life is ‘why.’” “All Around You” is a classic R&B ballad in the vein of Stax/Volt; on it, the narrator notes, “long after I’m gone/ I’ll still be around/ Cause our bond is eternal.” Finally, “Call to Arms” ends the album with a fuck you to the country’s military industrial complex. Against a Talking Heads shuffle and horns reminiscent of the horns on Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” the narrator warns, “Well, son, I hope you don’t grow up/ Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man” before going on to say:

Wearing that Kim Jong-il hat
Grandma’s selling pills hat
Meanwhile, I’m wearing my “can’t pay my fucking bills” hat

Nobody’s looking up to care about a drone
I’m too busy looking down at a phone
Ego begging for food like a dog from a feed
Refreshing obsessively until our eyes start to bleed
They serve up distractions and we eat them with fries
Until the bombs fall out of our fucking skies

Turn off the TV
Turn off the news
Ain’t nothing to see
They’re serving the blues
Bullshit on the TV
Bullshit on the radio
Hollywood telling me how to be me
Bullshit’s got to go

Taken as a whole, these songs present a broad range of male emotion: love, hope, sadness, fear, and righteous anger. It’s all here. And although the anger is directed against a system that suggests to be a man is to have a willingness to die violently (and thus to have a willingness to abandon his family), Simpson counters by suggesting that to be a man is to feel deeply and to feel much.

Elsewhere on the album, Simpson transforms Nirvana’s “In Bloom” from a grunge anthem into a tender ballad.

He also changed a lyric in the song: “He knows not what it means when I say ‘yeah’” became “He don’t know what it means to love someone,” somewhat altering the song’s meaning. In interviews, Simpson is claiming he simply sang the lyrics the way he remembered them. In order to put out the cut with the revised lyrics, Simpson had to petition the Cobain estate for approval. Of course they gave him their blessing. After all, Sturgill’s not just rewriting the lyrics of the heroes of the music industry of yore; he’s rewriting the music industry’s whole goddamn rulebook. He’s blazing a new trail to the top and stretching the boundaries of what artists in this day and age can do when they get up there.

Click here to buy A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.