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Despite being distinctly American music, country music has for years been considered a joke. Despite “newer” acts like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson, the genre is being torn apart from the inside with millions, maybe billions, of dollars being spent on a broken system to make hits. But
why go on? Sturgill just released his third album and ironically, it's more interesting than what’s going on in music corruption these days.
Two years ago, musician Sturgill Simpson appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. In the nearly three hour interview that followed, Simpson made mention of a personal plan to only release five albums in his lifetime. The intention seemed to be one album a year. However, when Simpson had a child, the album was put on hold. Now Simpson has returned to music with his new album, a song cycle called “A Sailor's Guide To Earth.” For all intents and purposes the album was made for his son, but was the album worth the wait and does Simpson still have the edge he established with
his first two releases?
While the answer to the first question is certainly a yes, the second is slightly more difficult to answer considering that “A Sailor's Guide To Earth” is not a country recording in the traditional sense of the word. A clear soul and R&B influence is found on the record. In fact, the horn section of the Dap-Kings (Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse) backed Simpson on five of the album’s tracks. The soul sound is no surprise, given Simpson’s deep love of singer Marvin Gaye and it works just as well as the slide guitar found on the album.
One take-away from the album is a general lack of rocking. There is certainly power in the tracks and ferocity at times. However tracks do occasionally pulsate wildly, especially when following the
album’s one rule to play at “maximum volume.” Those tracks would be “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)” and “Call To Arms.”Yet who needs to rock when you have story...layers of story!
Arguably the album isn’t exceptionally deep, but it’s exceedingly human. At its core the album is just as much about Simpson’s time in the Navy, as well as it is about becoming a father. Putting failures, but also profound love into context, Simpson manages both by being one of the greatest lyricists currently out there. The storytelling found in tracks such as “Sea Stories” and “Oh Sara” go bounds beyond what is passing as country music currently. The whole is better than the sum of its parts however.
While some individual songs may be weaker than others, such as the cover of Nirvana's “In Bloom” which just came off as vocally underwhelming, the overall album is strong and has a flow. The flow is what takes the album from being merely a group of songs to being a concept album. Like any concept album, it translates better on vinyl. Not only that, but I'd go one further and say that vinyl really is the only way one should listen to the album. Sure you stream it, but you're missing the point of the cycle.
Though not a personal low point, some people found the strings on the album unnecessary. Yet this reviewer personally feels they match Simpson’s style exceedingly well, certainly adding to the emotionalism the opening track of the album gave.
It’s a strong album and shows an artist furthering his sound, definitely an album worth checking out in full. Take part in an experience unlike any other. Buy yourself this record, preferably on vinyl, and let the music play because unlike other albums that lack singularity, this record has vision. Sure, in a sense it’s ego music, but so was the Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” one of the few albums I’d consider to have a better flow, a masterpiece if there ever was one.
Featured Image: Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide To Earth // Limited Edition Blue Vinyl LP
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