When we first spoke to Sturgill Simpson at the Americana Music Festival back in 2013, he was promoting his debut album, High Top Mountain, and was being pushed in the press as an outlaw revivalist in the vein of Waylon Jennings. But Simpson was emphatic in talking about the wide range of musical influences he brings to his work, from Guns ‘N Roses to Japanese electronic music. When he released his second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the heavy influence from ’60s psychedelic rock caught many critics by surprise. Now Simpson is back with his third album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, out Apr. 15th, and while he hasn’t quite gotten those Ryuichi Sakamoto influences into his songs, he continues to prove that there’s room in country music for every conceivable influence under the sun.
Many fans were concerned when Simpson signed with Atlantic Records after the success of Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, worried that a major label would mean the kind of restrictions that would kill the maverick spirit that has made Sturgill Simpson’s career special. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth should ease those fears. Not only was Simpson not forced to remake Metamodern, he was given the freedom to self-produce the album, parting from white-hot producer Dave Cobb to throw everything into the album. It was a gamble on Atlantic’s part, and one that Sturgill Simpson has rewarded in spades.
A loose concept album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is Sturgill Simpson’s diary to his young son, covering everything from the almost overwhelming feeling of responsibility on album opener “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” to warts and all reminisces of his three years as a Navy sailor on “Sea Stories” to the endearingly conventional dad advice to a teenager on album standout track “Keep Between the Lines.”
Musicians have been writing songs and albums about their kids since the history of recorded music began, with mixed results ranging from endearing to saccharine to downright terrible. Simpson’s album never really fits any of those labels because the “letter to my son” angle is brilliantly used as a reflection on his own life experiences, both good and bad.
Nowhere is this self-reflective mood more apparent than in his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Released as a single a month prior to the album’s release, it got mixed reviews, not surprising from such a beloved classic from a lot of people’s childhoods. But in the context of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the cover makes so much more sense. What dad doesn’t eventually try to get his kid to listen to the music that he loved when he was a teenager? At that point, it becomes less a “let’s do a slowed down countrified take on a grunge hit” to a father-son moment, including the changed lyric “don’t know what it means to love someone” which, intentional or not, fits perfectly with the “dad misremembering the lyrics of his old favorite” moment. You can almost feel the teenage eyes rolling.
Stylistically, this is another leap into the unknown for Simpson. Backed up by the funky horns of The Dap-Kings, the album feels like what would happen if Waylon Jennings took The J.B.’s into the studio and invited Elvis Presley and Curt Cobain along for support. It shouldn’t work, but then neither should sticking psychedelic drug references into a country song and Sturgill already mined that vein.
With A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson has pulled off a near impossible feat. He has followed up a career defining album with one that’s even better. While the best song on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, “Keep It Between the Lines”, isn’t quite as good as “Turtles All the Way Down” from Metamodern, top to bottom it’s a more cohesive, more adventurous, and lyrically superior album.