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.