A Sailor's Guide To Earth

Sturgill Simpson

Atlantic, 2016


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Of course country-traditional ten-gallon-hat pedal steel guitar and deeply funky big-soul-band horns go together. Of course they do. This not-at-all-apparent fact feels patently obvious after a single listen to this album, and yet I’ve never heard it pulled off quite like this before.

It should be no surprise that the alchemist behind this combination of science and magic is noted Nashville iconoclast Sturgill Simpson, a man who’s made it abundantly clear to country music’s powers that be that he simply won’t be caged by anyone else’s expectations of him, not ever.

Now take a deep breath and repeat after me: A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is a progressive-country-soul-funk concept album. And while it stumbles here and there in its manic efforts to clear every hurdle on the entire musical infield, when it hits its stride, it blows the rest of the pack away. It’s the polar opposite of formula: pure balls-out music-making infused with the kind of energy and commitment that every coach in the land wishes they could bottle.

“Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)” opens things up in full-on Garth Brooks mode, with big melodramatic vocals and a slightly overcooked string arrangement triple-underlining the significance of the moment as Simpson greets his newborn son. Then at 2:45 of this 4:53 number, Simpson executes a 90-degree left turn and kicks into full-blown, horn-and-organ driven gospel-funk tent revival. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Simpson follows this gutsy hybrid up by breaking it in two for the next two tracks. First you get “Breakers Roar,” a very pretty and decidedly philosophical acoustic ballad, and then we dive directly into the rollicking country-gospel-soul of “Keep It Between The Lines.” Throw together twangy slide guitar, a fat horn section, a dollop of Louisiana funk sauce in the rhythm section and a sassy barroom-bad-boy lyric and you’ve got the funkiest damned country song you could ever ask for.

The clever “Sea Stories” runs closer to straight up country-rock, though the organ and piano have a gospel-y feel at times. “Setting out on them high seas / Feels just like being born,” sings Simpson, before he admits “I’ve got sea stories / They’re all true / They might seem a bit far-fetched / But why would I lie to you.” It’s a punchy number that also sneaks in a message at the end.

The midpoint of the album is where Simpson throws his biggest 12-6 curveball, remaking Nirvana’s thundering, sarcastic “In Bloom” as a pure country ballad, fiddle and slide leading the way as Simpson turns the song on its head, replacing scorn with empathy by adding a single phrase to a key line as he sings of a fan who “Don’t know what it means / To love someone.” (Simpson claims this was simply a mistake resulting from him mis-hearing the original lyric… if true, it was a damned good mistake.)  

Next up is a number that ends up feeling even more out of place. “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)” feels like a lost Bad Company number, a thumping, arena-sized blues-rocker full of coiled tension; when the oppressive ’80s synth comes in over the discordant slide notes, well, chances are you’re either going to hate it or tip your hat to the man with the biggest cojones in the room. After that Simpson steers back toward more familiar waters, decorating the midtempo pledge of faith “All Around You” with sweeping slide, sweet horns and a big sax solo before going full Garth on you with the string-heavy love ballad “Oh Sarah.”

Closer “Call To Arms” lives up to its rabble-rousing title, a raging anti-war, anti-Hollywood, anti-all-authority battle cry that rides into town astride a galloping rhythm and steadily accelerates into a full-tilt country-soul-funk jam, putting a giant exclamation mark on an album full of them.

With A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, Sturgill Simpson tries to answer a question that it seems has never occurred to anyone else to ask: what would it sound like if Merle Haggard, Garth Brooks, James Brown and Sly Stone made an album together? I don’t really know, myself, but I get the feeling Sturgill does.

Rating: A-

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