If modern country music is best known for the products of the yeehaw industrial complex, including artists like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, whose songs feel tailor-made by label executives to soundtrack beer commercials, Sturgill Simpson has always seemed to represent the best of the genre’s tradition.
While the style and substance of his discography has varied, his songwriting and unwavering commitment to authenticity reminds the listener of Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams more than anything one might hear on the radio. While his debut album “High Top Mountain” arrived with little fanfare, 2014’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” received universal acclaim and catapulted him to stardom as the newest savior of alternative country, alongside acts such as Tyler Childers and Ashley Monroe. When 2016’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” garnered even greater fame and led to an upset Grammy win over Lynn herself, Simpson began to cement himself as the next in line of musicians so vital to the genre’s development that their names carry a weight larger than just their songs: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and finally, Sturgill.
Of course, what made Simpson’s music so special in the first place was the constant desire to innovate, a restlessness that demanded he never stay too long in one place. His newest album, “SOUND & FURY,” is both his most dramatic left turn and the only logical step to anyone who was paying attention. From the first moments of opening track “Ronin,” a two-minute guitar solo preceded by a mocking of cultural critics and Alex Jones, it becomes clear that Simpson hasn’t written a country album at all. Rather, “SOUND & FURY,” accompanied by a full-length anime film of the same name, is a gorgeous synth-rock dance album in the vein of ZZ Top. Gone are the intimate man-with-guitar ballads that littered his earlier work in favor of bluesy breakdowns and vocals drenched in reverb. Where Simpson’s voice once dominated, it is now muted, just another instrument to be used along with the flutes and distorted guitar licks.
If an album can be said to have a thesis statement, that of “SOUND & FURY” is buried in the back half of the track list on the punk-inspired “Last Man Standing,” where Simpson exclaims “it’s fuck all y’all season” with a growl that leaves no doubts about his sincerity. For all the changes in sound, what shines the most is the fury found in his words and delivery. Make no mistake, Sturgill is pissed, and he plans to use all 40 minutes to explain what it is he’s so angry about. Offenders include fake friends, the demands of fame and the music journalists who have been so effusive in their praise. For all the blood that Simpson has spilled on the page in the last decade, he seems frustrated that we’ve still managed to read it wrong. When he rails against “all the journalists and sycophants wielding their brands” on the tender, synth-based “Mercury in Retrograde,” it’s easy to forget his status as a critical darling. Maybe we’ve been wielding our brands on the back of a Sturgill we invented, rather than the human being behind the songs.
Beneath all the rage, “SOUND & FURY” contains some of Simpson’s most vulnerable moments. In “Remember to Breathe,” he croons about “having one-way conversations with the darkness in my mind,” adding that “he does all the talking ‘cause I’m the quiet kind.” Similarly, standout track “Make Art Not Friends” sees Simpson struggle with the loss of true friends that comes with fame, as well as the ulterior motives of their replacements. Though he may claim to have “bloodshot eyes and a heart of stone,” the loneliness buried underneath the chaotic and beautiful production is key to understanding his anger. Simpson’s a happily married man, but “Mercury in Retrograde” finds him resenting the time he must spend away from his family as a traveling musician, saying “There’s nothing for me outside this hotel room / But another letdown, lonely day.” Simpson has all the awards and recognition he could want, but more than anything, he just wants to get back home.
The final track on the album, “Fastest Horse in Town,” is an encapsulation of everything wonderful about “SOUND & FURY.” It’s a loud and violent rock anthem built to kick in your doors and blow out your speakers. But the chorus goes further and sums up Simpson’s musical career up until this release, from the heartfelt humor of his early work to the raging Southern rock that permeates the album. Simpson sings, “Everybody’s trying to be the next someone / But look at me, I’m trying to be the first something.” It’s the very ethos that demanded the radical change in the first place and it’s the thing that makes every album he’s released so special. In every song he sings, Sturgill aims to be the first something. There’s something to admire about that.