“Some people might love it, some might not. I feel the same way about the new one as I felt about the last one before it came out. I’m nervous, but I made the record I wanted to make and the record I needed to make, I guess. I’m not even sure it’s a country record, to be honest with you.”
That’s what Sturgill Simpson had to say in his interview alongside Merle Haggard with Garden & Gun a few weeks back. It was quite the thought-provoking quote when I read it and it still is after hearing the album. To say A Sailor’s Guide To Earth was highly anticipated is an understatement. In 2014 Sturgill Simpson absolutely skyrocketed in popularity after the release of what I believe will be looked back upon as a classic album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Simpson went from critical country darling to indie sensation to major label artist with an ever-growing following in what felt like a blink of an eye. Many instantly labeled him savior and some still do. When we rewarded him Male Artist of the Year in 2014, I remember pointing out that he isn’t a savior, but rather a trailblazer:
Sturgill Simpson says he doesn’t want to be anointed the savior of country music and I don’t blame him. Who wants that pressure? He isn’t the savior of country music either. You know what I would call him? A trailblazer. Simpson is living proof that if you are talented and dedicated enough to do what you truly want in life, people will pay attention. He’s an inspiration to aspiring young country artists everywhere. Not only has he inspired potential artists, but the fans. It’s amazing the amount of fans he has accumulated over 2014, many of them new. Simpson has reinvigorated disenfranchised country fans to believe in the genre again. It has made a lot of people realize they can’t rely on radio for their country music.
Simpson alone won’t save country music. But he has clearly planted the seeds to a potential revolution in the genre. He could be one of the pieces to bringing quality back to country music.
Look at all of the great new and existing artists that have risen since Sturgill’s breakout. Jason Isbell reached #1 on the country albums chart, Chris Stapleton has had his own meteoric rise and Margo Price just played Saturday Night Live. Genuine country music is alive and thriving. So that brings us to Simpson’s third album and first under major label Atlantic Records, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. Did it meet its lofty expectations? Yes. But in ways I never imagined. That’s probably how Sturgill preferred it too.
The sound of seagulls and a bell ring in “Welcome To Earth.” It dramatically segues into some smooth piano play before Sturgill begins to sing. “Hello my son, welcome to earth” is the first line Simpson sings, appropriate considering this album is for his young son. Simpson sings about the great love he has for his son and how much his life has now changed as a result of him being born. About halfway through the song though it abruptly changes to blue-eyed, Memphis soul with lots of horn instrumentation as Simpson sings about the guilt he feels when he’s away from his son on the road. The entire song brilliantly explores all of the conflicting feelings Sturgill feels about the impact his son has made on him in such a short time. The hauntingly dark, yet beautiful “Breakers Road” follows. In this song Simpson explores the mental demons and inner problems that can bring you down. It’s pretty depressing, but poignantly honest. As Simpson sings at one point, “heartaches can kill.” There’s a lot of string production on this song along with the pedal steel guitar. The amount of string instrumentation can be jarring at first, but sounds quite natural after multiple listens.
“Keep It Between The Lines” returns to that soulful, bluesy sound on the second half of “Welcome To Earth.” Out of all the songs on this album, this one is probably the most unlike songs on his previous albums. There are trumpets, horns and an organ prominent throughout it, making it one of the loudest songs too. Yet it fits Simpson like a glove and may be some of the best instrumentation I’ve heard from him. The song itself is Simpson giving his son life lessons and tips. “Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done/It don’t have to be like father like son” Simpson sings at one point, hoping his son doesn’t repeat the same mistakes he made. This is followed by one of the best moments on the album, as Simpson’s fantastic lead guitarist Laur Joamets rips off an impressive, funky guitar solo. Joamets is an amazing talent and this is just another example of it. Simpson recalls his days of serving in the Navy on “Sea Stories.” If you’re looking songs similar to previous two albums, this song is the closest to them. Before this Simpson had never really sung about his days in the Navy, which makes this song more fascinating. In the song he refers to all of the stories of his time in the Navy and how he went from a pollywog (sailor who hasn’t crossed the equator) to shellback (sailor who has crossed the equator before). The songwriting is classic Simpson and it’s one of the most memorable on the album.
The song that has probably attracted the most attention on the album is “In Bloom.” This is of course a cover of the popular Nirvana song. Simpson is a big fan of Nirvana and has said this is his tribute to the late Kurt Cobain. Now is the part where I regrettably admit that I had never heard this song before Simpson covered it. I’m sorry, Nirvana fans! But after hearing Simpson’s version and Nirvana’s version, I now want to explore their music. Anyway back to Simpson’s version: it can take on a much different meaning than the original. Nirvana’s “In Bloom” is commentary on the mainstream fans showing up at their concerts and buying their music after becoming famous. This is despite them not really understanding the message behind Nirvana’s music and really just mindlessly singing along because it sounds catchy and it’s popular.
Simpson adds onto the final line of the chorus, “Don’t know what it means to love someone.” This can give the song a whole different meaning. At first I took the song being about someone who is young, perhaps as young as a teenager, who doesn’t understand what love is yet and the powerful impact it can have on your life. Perhaps this is Sturgill recalling where he was before his wife and son came into his life. The other message I could gather from it was it slightly modifies from Nirvana’s meaning. I could see it being about the people who thought his songs on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that mention drugs are about that and not love, the true theme of the songs. However you want to interpret this song, I think it’s absolutely astounding and yet another cover Simpson knocks out of the park.
The album’s lead single “Brace For Impact” follows this. This was the first song we all got to hear from the album and listening to it in the context of the whole album really makes it sound better. Listening to it alone, it could come off as weird and out of place. You could really say this about any song on the album. This is why Sturgill requested NPR’s First Listen to not allow individual listening of each song, forcing you to listen to the whole album. This song builds into the overall theme of Simpson teaching his son lessons and bestowing knowledge upon him and really the listeners too. The teaching continues in “All Around You,” as Simpson gets spiritual. He extensively explored spirituality in his last album, which at times got dark and admittedly a little weird. On “All Around You” though, it’s much more upbeat and happy as the song goes. Simpson tells his son that the world may be terrible at times and you may get lost along the way, but reminds his son that their bond and love will always exist. He also tells him that God is inside him, all around him and up above. All of these things will be there to show him the way in life. Again Simpson’s songwriting and production choices are just fantastic and makes you want to listen to the music over and over.
Simpson explores love and heartache on “Oh Sarah.” For longtime fans of Simpson they’ll instantly recognize this song, as his old band Sunday Valley performed this song extensively. The song is about the tension that can crop up in a marriage when your job requires you to be out on the road all the time. The wife is distressed about it, but the husband reassures her even though his life belongs to the road, his heart belongs to her and her only. You know just another love song that Simpson seemingly rattles off in his sleep that leaves you impressed. As Simpson did on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he closes out A Sailor’s Guide To Earth with a loud bang with “Call To Arms.” The instrumentation and lyrics are equally fierce, as Simpson makes some scathing commentary on war. This is not against the troops as Simpson is very much for them, but rather against the procedures and reasoning behind the war, along with the treatment of soldiers. For example he points out how he doesn’t want his son to be a puppet, which is insinuating how soldiers are used by the military. It falls very much in the same vein of songs like Corb Lund’s “Sadr City” and Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues.” The song closes out with one of Simpson’s most well written lines I’ve heard from him: “Bullshit on the TV, bullshit on the radio, Hollywood telling me how to be me, bullshit’s got to go.”
There’s nothing else to say except Sturgill Simpson did it again. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is another masterpiece from Simpson. If you’re looking for another copy of High Top Mountain or Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, don’t bother listening. If you’re a fan of music and you trust Simpson, strap in and listen to this album because you won’t be disappointed. You will however be surprised, as Simpson once again takes a different approach in the sound department. There are multiple outright country songs and every song has country elements in them. But there’s also Memphis soul and the Muscle Shoals sound that deeply influence the album. Not to mention there’s lots of string production and horns in many songs. Is it a country record? Well I can tell you Sturgill Simpson wrote, produced and performed an album of phenomenal music. I can say this is Simpson’s most cohesive and tight-knit album yet. Perhaps the best answer to this comes from the late great Merle Haggard: “Good. If it’s what they’re calling country, you don’t want to go near that shit.” And Simpson did exactly that. Simpson gave us something we never expected and yet exactly what we wanted and that’s art straight from the heart.