By Contributing Writer Jacob Hunsinger
Nobody can tell Sturgill Simpson what to do. We ought to know that by know. The wildly ambitious singer-songwriter and Kentucky native has been breaking convention and musical tradition since his sophomore record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music where he explored traditional country writing akin to Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings(whom Simpson’s voice is often compared to) through a bent psychedelia kaleidoscope that somebody dropped and then lit on fire. He got tired of this really quick though, distancing himself from the sound after stating that “people think I wake up in the morning and pour LSD on my Cheerios.”
Simpson followed Metamodern with A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a record framed as a letter to his wife and son, that explored a new kind of country music, flavored by multiple genres and wild sweeping string and horn arrangements. Simpson yet again earned universal acclaim, as well as his first Grammy for Best Country Album. The differences between Metamodern and Guide To Earth are obvious and plenty, but the qualities that makes Sturgill Simpson’s songwriting and production nothing short of excellent was consistent. Following his trend of doing something wildly different than his previous efforts, Simpson cast aside the country music label for something…dirtier.
SOUND & FURY, released on September 27th through Elektra Records, is a stark departure from anything Sturgill Simpson has shown us before. This being his fourth record, Simpson calls this effort a “sleazy, steamy, rock n’ roll record” and also his heaviest to date. The opening track is the instrumental, dystopian piece called “Ronin,” that has samples of Alex Jones screaming, cars revving and speeding off followed by an extended guitar solo laying the groundwork for what is to come.
Next is the song “Remember to Breathe”, that is defined by a lead guitar tone ripped out of a Samurai movie, sexual and moody lyrics and singing, and a groove that makes you want to drag race. The next track, “Sing Along” is a synth-heavy, digital rave song. The variety in the music, as well as the harsh sonic textures blend Sturgill’s voice to different levels of success. On “Sing Along” it is jarring until you get comfortable, while other tracks like “A Good Look” that was co-written with John Prine of all people, never really satisfies.
SOUND & FURY is good. But it’s not great. Simpson’s lyrical themes are consistent, and not without stand out lines. In Remember to Breathe, the second verse goes: “Staying off the radar like a bomber on the run / Do another lap around the target just for fun / Stayin’ quiet, keeping calm until I find the one / Feel the wave wash over me when the deed is done.” That’s pretty sick. Yet the rest of the album does not show much lyrical diversity. It seems as though Simpson is trying to be braggadocios and rough n’ tumble. At times, you can’t really emotionally connect with the record the way you could his previous work. Maybe that’s because you can barely hear him over the loud, bombastic, fuzzy and distorted production that drowns out his voice. Sometimes SOUND & FURY feels just like ambient noise from an action movie. And I think that’s the point.
SOUND & FURY has a very cinematic feel and that was intentional. Released as a companion piece to the record, an anime movie of the same name is now on Netflix. Before the record was released, Simpson and his band flew to Japan to hire some of the best anime artists, get them wicked drunk and had them make a movie around the record. Whether or not the movie makes the music better, I’m not sure. On the merits of the record alone, I give it a B- rating. A heavy record to drive and vibe to, and not cry or get high to.