Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘SOUND & FURY’

For an artist that tries his damndest to avoid the public eye, Sturgill Simpson certainly generates a lot of discussion and opinions when he does show his face. Coming into his fourth album SOUND & FURY, it was to be expected after a long wait and his announcing that it wouldn’t be a country album. And this comes after he’s been living under a rock the last two and a half years.  A polarizing artist in a polarizing society causing reactions on both extremes of the spectrum. A real shocker, huh? With this review I hope to bring a different view of why I think this album is brilliant, but also try to make sense of the mischaracterizations being put forth too.

“Ronin” opens with the sounds of a speeding car and Joe Rogan doing a spot-on Alex Jones impersonation over the radio. This gives way to the cinematic and grooving sounds of Simpson on lead guitar and Chuck Bartels shredding on the bass (Bartels really breaks out on this record). It all sets the tone and lets you know you’re in for a rock and roll album. This segues right into “Remember to Breathe,” which intimately details an assassin getting ready to make a kill and then doing so. It’s one of the more sinister and dark songs from Simpson and the excellent drum play of Miles Miller provides that ominous, rumbling feel with Bobby Emmert on the synth giving it that “samurai showdown” feel.

Lead single “Sing Along” is probably the most “accessible” song, as it’s about a man watching the woman in his life walk away and leaving him feeling helpless. This features one of the most badass sounding lines I’ve heard from Simpson: “Tell em’ to carve my name in the barstool baby/You know I’m going to be here a while.” The imagery of this line and the way Simpson delivers it gives it a real jolt and makes for a memorable moment.

“A Good Look” is a funky and rocking tune where Simpson cautions other artists to stop worry about looking good and worry more about crafting a good hook. Simpson solely wrote every song on the album, except for this one, which he wrote with John Prine. As soon as I found this out, I tried to figure out which parts Prine wrote and in my opinion I think he wrote the opening biblical verse, along with the chorus. It just screams Prine. Not to mention, this is the first song Simpson has made you can actually dance to. But it’s still packed with the classic imagery and depth Simpson brings with his lyrics, from the descriptive second verse to him delivering the dismissive lines I imagine are from someone at the label said to him at some point (“How you gonna eat when you’re bitin’ the hand?”). It’s a really fun song that I imagine will be a big hit live.

“Make Art Not Friends” is one of the most revealing moments on this album. Simpson appears to be drawing inspiration from his exhaustion and anger on the road touring in 2017. Now a lot of people are focusing on the lyrics in this song slamming the industry and I can see how some view this as him being kind of ungrateful. But I see this more as Simpson showing regret in his actions, as the chorus details his ragged state. He sings “Never again, rather be alone,” which I interpret as him realizing the mistake he made in saying yes to touring in 2017 after he said he wouldn’t do so. Shortly after this he sings “I love saying no to all the yes men,” which seems to refer to his state post-2017 and coming to the realization that in his compromise to “play the game” with the music industry, he ultimately was the one who lost and now he’s swearing it off completely.

Simpson is conveying that he just wants to focus on music and not the people in the industry who think they have his best interests. It’s a fascinating look into his psyche after the Grammys and how it changed him. I think this song is more about growth and realization, not the “taking it to the man” anthem nor the grumpy asshole complaining about success many are interpreting it to be. Not to mention I really enjoy the timing and placement of the synths in this song, as they come in at just the right moments to add some gravity and emotion to the lyrics.

“Best Clockmaker on Mars” is one of the hardest rockers on the album and also Simpson’s obligatory love ode to his wife that he’s had on every album. It’s also a fun singalong with head-banging guitar licks throughout, but don’t overlook one of the most heartfelt verses: “Some days I hate everything I am/But your love holds a mirror to me/Show me a love I can understand/Make sense of the world I see.” I really enjoy the sci-fi synths, as it feels appropriate on a song with Mars in the title.

The next song “All Said and Done” is another glimpse into Simpson’s mind in 2017. Again I see this as Simpson accepting blame for the anger and sense of resignation he has towards the world and his career. This is about a battle playing out in his own head, yet he doesn’t even know why and acknowledges that he’s willfully letting his career slip through his own actions. It’s funny how this is the second time Simpson has said an album will destroy his career (he said the same thing with Metamodern), yet I think much to his chagrin this is only going to make him more popular. Simpson said this album is “going to hell” (step four of the five steps of the journey of the soul in Christian mysticism) and this feels like his lowest point during this span.

“Last Man Standing” sees Simpson beating his chest and proclaiming himself to be the last one standing, even though his hermit mentality seems to suggest otherwise. Now this song has prompted what I believe to be an unjustified criticism of this song and Simpson’s vocals on this album: people blaming the production for not being able to understand what Simpson is singing. And here’s my counterpoint: Was it easy to understand him on his other albums? I say no.

I had trouble understanding him on every single album upon initial listens and this one is no different, which shows to me that blaming production is misplaced. The production was clear as day on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, yet it took me longer to figure out all the lyrics on that one compared to this album. When Simpson sings sometimes he turns into a mumbling marble mouth with an even thicker accent. To quote an old Skyrim meme: It’s a feature, not a bug. In other words, it’s completely fair to criticize not being able to understand the lyrics, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the production is to blame for it.

“Mercury in Retrograde” is the grand slam on this album: Simpson’s songwriting at it’s best and the sound at it’s most fun and catchy. It also reminds me of something that would have fit in perfectly on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, with it’s disco-influenced sound, the dour observation in the chorus and the biting honesty. At first I jumped to the conclusion that Simpson was taking shots other artists on this song, but I realized that’s never been his thing. Many seem to also think he’s taking aim at fans on not just this song, but other moments on this album. But again this is not consistent with his history. So I don’t know why some are interpreting the lyrics as such. No, instead it’s a boring answer: suits at labels and award shows, which George Strait to AC/DC have taken their shots at. It just ultimately makes for scathingly fun lyrics you want to jam out along with.

The closing song “Fastest Horse in Town” is that blazing, get the fuck out of town anthem to perfectly cap off SOUND & FURY. It’s Simpson’s fiery proclamation that he’s no longer going to neglect the things that matter most to him: his family and his craft. On top of that he throws in that Eminem influence he hinted at before the album, declaring himself as not the “next someone,” but the “first something.” It doesn’t touch any of the braggadocios lines on Eminem’s Kamikaze, but it’s an appropriate closing statement that recaps the hell Simpson went through to reach the conclusion he’s arrived at and who he wants to be moving forward.

SOUND & FURY from start to finish feels like one long song, as it’s both cohesive in sound and lyrics, telling several stories that tie into overarching theme of Simpson being angry at a lot of things in the world, but when it comes down to it he’s most angry at himself and what he let himself become. Each track explores the flawed thoughts and actions of a flawed man. I see a lot of people constantly saying it reminds them of ZZ Top or 80s rock, but I don’t hear this. Instead I think this sounds closer to early to mid 70s music and sounds like the eccentric, frenetic sounds of Jeff Lyne and Electric Light Orchestra meets the in-your-face, sneering lyrics of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Love or hate this album, love or hate Simpson, it’s undeniable that a lot of thought and emotions went into this album. The amount of care and detail given to every aspect makes this one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2019 and yet another excellent album from Sturgill Simpson.

Grade: 10/10

2 thoughts on “Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘SOUND & FURY’

  1. Zackary Kephart October 16, 2019 / 8:16 am

    Fair warning: Long comment ahead, but you kind of expected that, right? Haha.

    “Now a lot of people are focusing on the lyrics in this song slamming the industry and I can see how some view this as him being kind of ungrateful. But I see this more as Simpson showing regret in his actions, as the chorus details his ragged state.”

    I mean, I think we’re on the same page here more than you think, bud. I never thought he was being ungrateful, but rather that he DID show regret. Part of why I said he felt like an afterthought in my first line of my own review was that, in essence, Sturgill COULD be bigger than he already is, if not in country than just in general. You’re right – he’s willing to throw that away for personal happiness, a trait I respect. Like we discussed, my issues come down to the near-nihilistic, apocalyptic approach. It seems like Simpson, lyrically, reaches for zanier metaphors to get his point across, when on past albums it felt like we got those deeper, grittier details from him (and not to say he didn’t reach for those crazier metaphors or that there wasn’t a deeper complexity, hell, we have “Turtles All the Way Down” as proof alone. I’m just saying there seemed to be a better balance).

    “I think this song is more about growth and realization, not the “taking it to the man” anthem nor the grumpy asshole complaining about success many are interpreting it to be.

    … Honestly, I’m going to refer to my above paragraph! Though I would disagree there isn’t pointed anger at the industry or at others. Which, for the record, is fine. Better to be honest, and I think most people would agree that this sounds like Simpson’s mindset in the past over where he is now.

    “This is about a battle playing out in his own head, yet he doesn’t even know why and acknowledges that he’s willfully letting his career slip through his own actions.”

    Right! We’re on the same page there. I think, ultimately, your praise for the approach of how that’s delivered is just my criticism of it. Nothing wrong with that!

    “Now this song has prompted what I believe to be an unjustified criticism of this song and Simpson’s vocals on this album: people blaming the production for not being able to understand what Simpson is singing. And here’s my counterpoint: Was it easy to understand him on his other albums? I say no.”

    No, but surely the compression here is even more overblown than on any of those albums. Plus, it’s not just an issue of enunciation. Simpson has one of the most naturally soulful, gripping voices in music, I think. Does he have the pipes of Stapleton? Of course not, but there’s more to vocals than power – there’s heartfelt charisma, which Simpson has always delivered well. It just baffles me why he’d choose to bury one of his greatest assets even deeper in the mix and let that warmth disappear. Then again, that’s largely the point, but that’s also why my issue is mostly with the approach 🙂

    Though I do think this album taught us both something – instead of letting the outside conversation guide our thoughts, we should both let our reviews speak for themselves instead of feeling the need to defend against anything. I think there’s many angles one can take with this album, hence why a lot of critics have liked it, and a few haven’t, which, as we discussed, is better than an album (or song or EP or …) that generates … well, nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh October 16, 2019 / 10:25 am

      I agree my friend, we are basically on the same page I think. The only difference being our views on the execution and approach, which is completely understandable of course. I can see why you have an issue with the “near-nihilistic, apocalyptic approach,” as I was a bit off put by it at first too. Reading the lyrics cleared it up for me a lot. But I think the big reason I can personally overlook it is because of the overall theme of hell and anger that permeates the album. These can be harder subjects to convey nuance and complexity through. I mean anger is usually the least logical driven emotion. But at the same time it doesn’t completely excuse him from having more introspective moments on the album like “All Said and Done,” which would have better driven the point Simpson was going for with this album. The only complete excuse that I could see from him in regards to the lack of deeper details is this album was originally he said it would be a double album and perhaps he had a more fleshed out vision, but the label maybe intervened. There could still be a story there and if there is, I hope it’s told. But based on what we know, I can completely understand the criticism for lack of detail and nuance.

      I agree on the compression being a little overdone in spots and I imagine this was his desired effect, but I can see why this is hard to listen to also. Specifically on “Last Man Standing” where this is most prevalent. And I agree his voice is one of his greatest assets. I imagine one justification could be he wanted to showcase his lead guitar skills more than his vocals, being that this is the first album without Laur Joamets. But that’s one issue that definitely happens when an artist self-produces.

      There’s nobody in the room to say no and speak up, which is why I still think Metamodern is his best. Cobb provides a necessary balance to Simpson’s crazier aspirations. I would also put ASGTE over this too, as Simpson seemed more steady handed in producing that album. While I enjoy S&F a lot now, I could also easily see it aging poorly. And I say this because while the lyrics are quite strong still, they’re not as consistently strong across the board as the last two albums.

      Regardless I think this will definitely go down as Sturgill’s “White Album” moment. I’m not sure how familiar you are with The Beatles, but this refers to their polarizing double album that generates a love it or hate it emotion in many. I lean the latter with it. But I ultimately make the comparison to show how great artists often have at least one album that divides listeners on the approach and execution. Most importantly we both were honest in our reviews, even if we have a few disagreements. I love it when there’s albums released that generate this type of heavy discussion. We need more of them. And I’ll add too that I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he went back to country on the next one and it has a universally loved reception similar to Metamodern. Sturgill is unpredictable and weird lol.

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