Hard to believe it’s been 3 years since Sturgill Simpson released Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. His second album found him dragging outlaw country right into these troubled modern times (and drawing comparisons to Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard and the likes). It was a far better album than the hype would suggest (yeah, I know, it was a highly acclaimed album, but it was awesome) and it wasn’t just witty, funny and dark, it was deep and philosophical. It included all sorts of good vibes, an outstanding cover choice and reptile aliens made of light. That, my friends, is what I want from my country music.
It was inevitable that Sturgill would find himself in the crosshairs of a major label and it was pretty huge when it was announced that he’d signed with Atlantic Records. Now he’d get that Grammy, we thought. Now he’s gonna make something that’ll blow our minds. And, well, he did. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is quite a shift. He left his first two records behind and drew from his experiences in the Navy, a letter that his grandfather wrote to his grandmother, and wrote his own letter to his wife and newborn son. As a result, it’s his most personal album to date. As you can imagine, there are strings. There are also horns. A lot of horns. The whole thing is just a funky piece of sentimental country music. The influences are wide… I hear Glen Campbell, Lowell George and (Aloha from Hawaii) Elvis.
Unfortunately, my opinion of it shifted over the last 12 months. The punch in the gut I got when I hear the opening lines of Welcome to Earth (Pollywog) is still there despite my tiring of the horns and the fact there’s no answer to why he now knows the reason why his grandfather always said God’s a fisherman. My love for that track (despite the horns) is down to timing – given that I was fairly new to the parenthood game myself. “Hello, my son welcome to Earth. You may not be my last but you’ll always be my first. Wish I’d done this ten years ago”. I can relate to it, y’know?
Anyhoo, as you’ll have guessed, the mood is very different to that of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and the Dap-Kings ensure that it’s a bit more, eh, brash and, perhaps a bit too loud. Point taken, Sturgill. There’s joy and then there’s shouting from the rooftops with a brass band when you don’t really need them.
It’ll come as no surprise, then, that I consider the best moments to be the quieter tracks like Breakers Roar, his take of Nirvana’s In Bloom and Oh Sarah. Two of which appear on Side A. Also, as good as In Bloom is (it could be the best thing here?), it does throw the song cycle a bit.
There’s some of that wit and humour in there, though. There are also things that I can relate to and things that will speak to an audience that may not normally buy into this whole thing (lines like “maybe get high, play a little GoldenEye on that old ‘64” from Sea Stories) as well as the token protest song (Call To Arms), but perhaps the references to the Navy and sea living has me feeling a bit alienated. That and the horns. A lot of horns.
So, aye, while my initial impressions were positive, I’ve found that it doesn’t deliver much else on repeated listens and, well, it’s not one I’ll revisit all that often, I’m afraid. It’s not a bad album – the songs are well crafted and it’s clear that he and his co-conspirators have put a lot of care into making it – it’s just not all that engaging after a while. I appreciate the sonic expansiveness of this new Sturgill Simpson Revue, I really do. But there’s just nothing that holds my attention and makes me think the way Metamodern Sounds in Country Music does.
And yeah, he did get that Grammy. If only the weight of Atlantic Records was behind Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
I hope he comes back to shore for his next release.
** This is the standard vinyl edition. There’s a ‘limited edition’ version on blue vinyl, which comes in the same gatefold sleeve. As well as the printed inner sleeve, it includes a poster.