In recent years, there’s been a trend in Americana and country music that aims to subvert the status quo established by the mainstream country music acts right out of Nashville. One of these artists is Sturgill Simpson, recognized in some circles as the successor to Waylon Jennings’ musical legacy. While his drawl and his overall demeanor brings Jennings to mind, that’s where the similarities end. When you listen to Waylon Jennings, you always know what to expect. However, when it comes to Sturgill Simpson’s work, there’s always bound to be a few surprises. And that sense of adventure permeates every track of Simpson’s latest record, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”.
Released on April 15 of this year, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” is Simpson’s third studio album and it’s probably his best. The record opens with “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”, with its lush orchestration reminiscent of some of Glen Campbell’s best work… that is until the track reaches its halfway mark and it suddenly transforms into a good old fashioned soul song complete with brass parts and some confident crooning from Simpson.
The following track, “Breakers Roar”, is a more traditional country ballad that slows the proceedings down a bit after the more balls-y opening track. The energy picks up again for, “Keep It Between the Lines” and “Sea Stories”, probably the most Waylon-like tracks in the record. It’s pretty clear that Simpson assembled an amazing group of session musicians for the record, and these tracks are proof of that.
The fifth track of the record is one that really comes out of left field: a mellow, lap-steel guitar-tinged cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”. It surprising how Simpson managed to take the song and made it his own. It’s a beautiful cover and a fitting tribute to Cobain and company. Simpson follows his Nirvana cover with what is probably my favorite track of the record, the badass southern rock track “Brace For Impact (Live a Little)”. It’s a simple song that’s carried by brilliant instrumentation and a great overall vibe.
“All Around You” continues Simpson’s foray into soul music, with its soaring organs and horn section making a case for country music actually having a lot in common with soul music. “All Around You” is followed by the droning and sparse “Oh Sarah”, another example of the band adapting very well to whatever Simpson throws at them. With this record, tonal shifts are the order of the day. Heavily-orchestrated tracks coexist with straightforward rockers and sparse ballads.
The record ends on a celebratory note with the rollicking and aptly-titled “Call to Arms”, a track that begs to be played live, complete with solo spots for the musicians. It’s a great way to end a record, and gives the impression that the entire album is meant to be listened to as a whole, something that is sorely lacking in a lot of recent releases.
Sturgill Simpson along with like-minded musicians like Jason Isbell and Hayes Carll are here to save country music. And with “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”, Simpson has definitely made a dent on our preconceptions of what country music is. It also helps that “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” is a perfect album and is definitely a contender for album of the year.