After a decade of hard work, Sturgill Simpson’s ship has come in. A year ago right now, he was working to put out an LP he’d recorded for $4,000; two weeks ago, he signed with Atlantic Records. He’s performed his outside-the-box country songs on stages alongside the likes of Zac Brown, Dwight Yoakam, and Jason Isbell. Everyone from Pitchfork to mainstream Nashvillians Keith Urban and Jake Owen sing his praises. When he can write a song as good as “Turtles All The Way Down,” who can blame them? And “Turtles” is just the opening salvo from his jawdropping sophomore effort, last year’s audaciously-titled Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
The record lives up to its name. Simpson’s Waylon-adjacent baritone coexists happily with lysergic tape loop bugouts; one would be forgiven for thinking Odelay! was playing if you walked in at the right moment. The lyrics focus on Simpson’s wild, vast spiritual quest, drawing upon hallucinogens, Emerson, religious mysticism, Chardin, and thinkpiece generator Seth Abramson. Even the title of that first track refers to an anecdote on the nature of infinity from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Jesus, Buddha, and “psilocybin and DMT” all have their fair shot to help him “roam to and through the myth that we all call space and time.” Florida Georgia Line this ain’t.
He continues to seek answers to capital-letter Big Questions for the remainder of the record’s short 35 minutes. He gives life advice on “Living the Dream,” has a downer of a trip on a mountaintop in “Voices,” and aims for ego death in “Just Let Go.” Right in the middle of the album is a left-field cover, an utter transformation of When In Rome’s late-80’s new wave hit “The Promise.” Simpson slows it down, replacing its familiar piano line with lonesome singing-in-the-wires pedal steel, and his belted final run through the chorus reveals the desolation that was always hiding behind the original’s synthpop sheen.
The album’s other cover, classic truckin’ tune “Long White Line,” cruises along in straightforward country fashion until it suddenly devolves into phase-shifted guitar madness. It serves as a preview for the studio wizardry displayed on album closer (and alternate-universe Abbey Road outtake) “It Ain’t All Flowers,” which revisits the themes of “Turtles” before floating off into a cloud of reversed tape loops and trip-hop drums. “Go ahead,” he sings, “and eat the whole damn pie.” Simpson’s not willing to play to anyone’s expectations. Thank goodness.
His 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, should not be overlooked in all of the buzz for Metamodern Sounds. It’s a more straightforward country affair, but by no means is that a bad thing. Opener “Life Ain’t Fair and the World Is Mean” wastes no time expressing frustration with the country status quo. “Won’t hear my song on the radio, ‘cause that new sound’s all the rage/But you can always find me in a smoky bar with bad sound and a dim lit stage.” The hilariously bitter “You Can Have the Crown” bemoans “spending all my money on weed and pills, trying to write a song that’ll pay the bills/But it ain’t came yet, so I guess I’ll have to rob a bank.” The record ends with the old Willie Nelson ballad “I’d Have To Be Crazy,” and it almost feels like an intentional nod towards the past before forging into the Metamodern future.
Since the release of Metamodern last May, Simpson’s career has exploded. The record was named album of the year by American Songwriter, and also appeared on year-end lists in (amongst others) The New York Times, Washington Post, and NPR. Each time he books a tour, he outgrows the venues before he even hits the road. Three-quarters of the shows on his winter slate (including Saturday’s show at The Madison Theater) are sold out, and some have been moved to larger venues to accommodate demand. Earlier this month, Simpson became the first artist invited to play both Coachella and its country-oriented partner Stagecoach, after which he’ll also perform at Governor’s Ball and Bonnaroo. If 2014 was a huge year for Simpson, 2015 has the potential to be even bigger.
Sturgill Simpson’s most prevalent press photo shows him wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a honey badger, the juggernaut African carnivore famed for “not giving a fuck” in a viral video four years ago. There’s no way this is a coincidence. He’s sold 100,000 records and packed venues around the world with little to no help from the Nashville establishment. Some observers might liken his attitude to the Nelson/Haggard/Jennings outlaw country movement of the early 70’s; others might just term it punk. Whatever you want to call it, it’s led him to craft his own road map from psychedelic visions and existential fears. We’ll just have to follow him to see where it leads next.
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