STURGILL SIMPSON’S BREAKTHROUGH SECOND ALBUM, 2014’s Grammy-nominated Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, moved far enough from the twang blueprint that Simpson claimed country purists believed he “woke up in the morning and poured LSD on my Cheerios”. Lord knows what they’ll make of A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, an album that opens like Waylon Jennings singing Wichita Lineman, then blossoms into Memphian soul and cycles through New Orleans funk, Nashville mourn, Beatlesque swoons and pedal steel-scored covers of grunge standards before its slender nine songs and 39 minutes are out.
Oh, and it’s a concept album, of sorts. Inspired equally by letters his grandfather sent home from the South Pacific during World War II, and Simpson’s unsettling experience of watching his newborn son grow up so fast while he was away touring, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth ruminates on the transformative powers of parenthood, the weight and ecstasy of love. Opener Welcome To Earth (Polywog) finds Simpson addressing his boy, apologising for another impending absence, and charting how fatherhood has enriched him. In a rich baritone that’s stoic but exposed, vulnerable but solid like oak, he sings “I wish I’d done this 10 years ago / But how could I know / How could I know / That the answer was so easy?”, before the Dap-Kings step in and transform the song’s tender ache into a glorious reverie, equal parts Stax soul and 10th Avenue Freezeout-mode Springsteen, never studied, messily joyous.
“The album’s ultimate motif is love’s power to profoundly change a life.”
Welcome To Earth starts A Sailor’s Guide To Earth on a giddily uplifting, unabashed emotional high, and the songs that follow swing for such peaks with ambition and charm. Keep It Between The Lines dispatches knowing parental advice over a loose, laid-back country-funk, like Exile-era Stones jamming with The Meters, Simpson yowling lustily “Do as I say, not as I done / It don’t have to be like father, like son!” All Around You, meanwhile, allies yearning Southern soul to lyrical pedal steel and a classic end-of-the-night ballad lyric. Call To Arms is an anti-war barnburner wherein Simpson prays his son never dies in battle and roars wildly over haywire honky-tonk stomp.
His audacious cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom, meanwhile, locates new poignancy within Cobain’s familiar lyric, that last line of the chorus – swallowed by noise on the original – now revealed as, “He don’t know what it means, to love someone.” And that’s the guiding force for the album, its ultimate motif being love’s power to so profoundly change a life.
It’s a grand, earnest theme to tackle, risking mawkishness along the way, but Simpson invests this bold, widescreen music with such heartfelt and real pathos and joy that it announces him as a major talent, and makes A Sailor’s Guide To Earth so rewarding.
Watch the video for Sturgill Simpson’s audacious cover of In Bloom here...