‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’ is an ambitious and sprawling record connecting the musical dots between country and R&B
Sturgill Simpson established himself as a worthy successor to Waylon Jenning’s iconic ‘outlaw country’ style in 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. It was a title he always rejected and his third album puts further distance between the comparisons. ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’ is an ambitious and sprawling record connecting the musical dots between country and R&B. Drawing on his time spent in the Navy, the nine songs take the shape of a sailor’s letter home to his wife and their newborn son. While the concept might appear twee, the result is a deeply moving record that sees Simpson pushing the boundaries of what a country star should sound like.
Opening track ‘Welcome to Earth’ begins with a sorrowful piano line, dramatic spiralling strings and a touching, heartfelt vocal. It builds to a Moody Blues call of “How would I know that the answer was so easy” before wonderfully morphing into a soulful uptempo swing that would sit alongside the pop sensibilities of Mark Ronson’s chart hits. With gleeful keys and feel-good trumpets from the Dap-Kings Brass Crew, the change of pace really hits you and works perfectly as a poignant ode to a newborn son. The life-affirming journey spanning country-opera to soul sets the tone for the following tracks and confirms that Simpson is a difficult artist to categorise.
Sturgill Simpson can also be the master of melancholy when he desires and these more downbeat moments are dispersed throughout the record such as on ‘Breakers Roar’, a traditional dream-like acoustic number and the nautical narrative of ‘Sea Stories’, where he takes a look back at some of the regrets of his life and the lessons learned. The country numbers sometimes lack a bit of bite after the immediacy of the funkier songs, but end up adding a nice variety to the record.
‘Keep it Between the Lines’ is a sassy and soulful strut dishing out fatherly advice for his future teenage son. Underpinned by staccato brass stabs and a groovy bassline, the song warns his son from making the same mistakes in life and insists “…it don’t have to be like father like son.”
At the centerpiece of the album is a jaw-dropping country take on the Nirvana’s gun-mocking anthem ‘In Bloom’. It’s a brooding, unsettling and slow-building Tim Burton-esque fairy tale that gives a whole new angle to the Grunge classic. A bold side step that could have easily misfired, it ends with a big band hurrah that adds a different kind of gravitas to the song.
For an album that switches between back-of-the-bar country anthems and dance-floor filling soul, the record never feels disjointed, It’s an album born of its time, taking inspiration from various musical legacies, shuffling between genres like most people now consume music. Lead single ‘Brace for Impact’ has a chugging, highway rock swagger, while ‘All Around You’ wouldn’t sound out of place as the closing song of a high school prom, with Sturgill’s romantic velvety croon and a saxophone solo setting another generation of teenage lovers on their way.
The album’s finale is the highly-charged, political anthem ‘Call to arms’, which sounds like if the Blues Brothers took lyrical inspiration from The New Statesman. It’s a rollicking anthem against the media portrayal of modern warfare and the psychological and financial stresses that servicemen often find on their return from conflict. The lyrics are right to the bone from the opening line – “I done Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, North Korea tell me where does it end? Well the bodies keep piling up with every day, how many more of they they gonna send?” It’s a furious and passionate end to a record, that not only gets your foot tapping but gives you something to think about.
‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’ is a touching and deeply personal album that not only showcases Sturgill Simpson’s considerable songwriting talents but also his ability to gamble and stretch himself as an artist. If you fancy taking a chance on a country album this year, this could be the place to start.
This Sturgill Simpson article was written by Tim Thackray, a GIGsoup contributor