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Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury Review

September 30, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
Sturgill Simpson
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Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury Review  

Neotraditionalist? Outlaw? Psychedelic? An endless array of loaded and ultimately vacuous terms have been placed in front of the word country in a desperate attempt to describe Sturgill Simpson’s brilliant genre and decade-hopping sound. It should be clear enough for all to see, whether he’s floating through the cosmos or ruminating on fatherhood, Simpson does whatever the hell he wants. Strangely, for a man so unencumbered by scenes, sounds or expectations, Sturgill sure seems to have reached the end of his tether on Sound & Fury. Having endured the industry yes man and all the glad-handing that comes along with fame, the Kentucky star finds himself scratching around for inspiration and resignedly sighing:

Keep staring at the pages, going over the same lines/It’s all been said and done by now, two or three times”.

For an arch creative credited (alongside Chris Stapleton and Hank Jr) with reviving avant garde country music, that certainly sounds like abject defeatism. Could Simpson really be throwing up his hands and openly admitting to writer’s block? Possibly, he’s certainly disillusioned with the music industry. Sound & Fury makes that quite clear, but its glorious sounds and brazen songwriting suggests that out of apathy and annoyance comes great inspiration.

Simpson is turning off and tuning out, but he’s no dropout. In fact, his playing is full of phlegm and fire. On album opener “Ronin” his tuning out is entirely literal. Searching around on his car stereo he dismiss political diatribes and conspiracy theorists by quickly changing the station, before turning the background noise off altogether and picking up his guitar. The sound of his six-string is gloriously slow-cooked, carrying both a lingering sorrow and an expansive beauty. From then on in, Sturgill is free. He’s flying down the highway, taking a tour of some familiar sites and sounds, but coming at them from unexpected new angles.

On the brilliant “Sing Along”, Simpson tackles the classic break up anthem by rejecting the usual bitterness and pettiness and instead writing a witty and infectious hook for his ex to sing aloud. It’s genius. Why spill your spleen when you could match a pounding club groove to boogie-worthy riff and croon: “You done me wrong, so here’s your song/So sing along baby”. It’s an absolute trip that recalls Roxy Music in their pomp were Ferry allowed to go full pop at the exact same moment Eno went off his nut with the instrumentasl. It’s not just the catchy grooves and clever chorus that makes the track; Simpson’s lyrics are full of artful hurt (“what once was, is now decayed”) and plainspoken humanity (“You are my only one”). The entire track builds to a pair of tragic couplets that allude to a profound ache without over egging the omelette (“Compromise is made out of peace, History’s made out of violence/After the war of the worlds has ceased, all that’s left is the deafenin’ silence”).

Elsewhere Simpson’s disdain is focused directly on the music industry itself. “Make Art Not Friends” feels like the flipside of the coin to Pink Floyd’s “Welcome To The Machine”. The tale of a man given the golden handshake and forced to toe a line he has absolutely no interest in following. Backed by stately synths that rise into a frightening buzzsaw chorus, Simpson finds himself trudging across a sorrowful stadium sized slice of ennui. The end result is a track that sounds like the something The Killers might make were they not obligated to include a gigantic singalong hook.

In the age of Drake and Post-Malone the “fame makes me sad” meme is a touch overplayed. Thankfully, Simpson’s solipsist turn serves to inject a healthy dose of vulnerability and venom. He is being forced to play nice and pander – it’s utterly alien to him. He is neither eating nor sleeping and he certainly isn’t creating. Simpson is gaunt and haunted (“face in the mirror, all skin and bone/bloodshot eyes and a heart of stone”). Lucky for us, he’s still spikey as all hell and happy to fire back: “I love to say “no” to all the “yes” men just to see the look on their face…so you got yours, and stay out of mine, here’s to the memories, where do I sign”. Well, if they’re going to suck your blood, you might as well make them suffer a little, eh?

Sturgill might be frustrated by earthly conceits, but he still finds room for intergalactic exploration on the serenely beautiful “All Said and Done”. The lyric sheet might speak of his inability to say anything new or truly insightful (“Spent the last year bored out of mind, looking for reasons I could never find”), but the music is gorgeously expansive. Soft acoustics anchor the track, but the instrumental is defined by a spacey drift as strums and key notes are allowed to ripple outward and decay organically. Floyd is the obvious port of call, especially during the interstellar solo, but it’s hard to look backwards even as Simpson tries to convince us that he’s yesterday’s man.

“Last Man Standing” is something of a head fuck. Asked who or what the track sounds like and the answer would be Elton John in his barroom-rocking, honky tonk loving, Americana-inspired pomp. Of course, this is entirely backwards. Simpson is an all American boy and Elton is the alien implant extracting another culture’s ideas, and yet this two minute work out feels like a grand reclamation and a tribute simultaneously.  Still, there’s little time to reflect, Simpson quickly changes the dial towards charming plinky-plonk eye-rolling of “Mercury In Retrograde”. So in case you haven’t already got the message: Sturgill Simpson is not interested in yes men and luvvies or, as he puts it: “The journalists and sycophants wielding their brands…and all the haters wishing they was in my band”. Yes, that’s correct, Sturgill Simpson has written an explicit “fuck the haters” anthem – what’s next, a diss track?

Simpson refuses to play anything straight. Even this contempt laden offering comes in the form of a sugary pop trot. “Mercury In Retrograde” could fit right into the early 80s as the easy listening rockstars of yore started to embrace a new world of electronic experimentation. Not only is the instrumentation delightfully counterintuitive, but after Sturgill has built up the tension and disgust in the verse, he simply croons a soft, silky and calm chorus. This wrongfooting is wonderful. Simpson might be angry, but he’s not gotten to: you’ve got your petty politics – he’s got the galaxy at large (“Mercury must be in retrograde again, but at least it’s not just hanging around, pretending to me my friend”).

The softly-softly approach is ditched on “The Fastest Horse In Town” as a wall of crunching, churning, squealing guitars soundtrack Simpson’s introspective turn. He’s still full of scorn (“Everybody’s trying to be the next someone…I’m trying to be the first something”), but here he’s happy to acknowledge his own hypocrisy. His aims are noble, his art is worthy, and yet there is no excuse to for failing in his obligations or abandoning the people he’s supposed to love (“I’ve been thinking of all the things I should have never left behind/Oughta be watching the children playing in the yard I never see, I should be mowing”). Fittingly, with his unsparing eye turned inwards, the music is brutally heavy and utterly unrelenting. Simspon might be rejecting a pitiful world and he may be better than most, but he is a part of it and just as selfish and fallible as the rest of us.

“He does all the talking, because I’m the quiet kind” that is how Simpson greets us on the “Remember To Breathe”, the first non-instrumental track on Sound & Fury. It’s fitting, Simpson is an artist and introvert, obsessed with creation and the cosmos with little time for the outside world. Unfortunately, his chosen occupation does not allow for isolation. He is a brand and a piece of public property, as much as he may despise it. Advisers and agents surround him. He’s in demand at all the right parties and he’s booked on all the right shows. To make matters worse, this lifestyle, that he so hates, drags him away from (and poisons) the relationships that he loves most.

The resulting music should be full of anger, frustration, scorn and, at times, paranoia – at least on paper. You see, when all is said and done, Sturgill can’t be brought down and he won’t be painted blue. In spite of all the anguish, his music remains full of joy, invention and impetus. Simpson turns writer’s block into a carnival of guitar driven delights. Sound & Fury might signal a societal apocalypse, but who can be sorrowful when Sturgill is leading us in such a wonderfully counterintuitive dance?

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
So it's not just famous rappers and chart topping popstars who are trying to convince us that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be. On Sound & Fury Sturgill presents himself as a solo creative drowning in a world of parasites, glad-handers and media chatter. He wants to be alone with his guitar, but the nonstop whirlwind of media emptiness is driving him mad and poisoning his most cherished relationships. The lyrics suggest a brutal and bleak album, but Simpson's arrangements are playful, expansive and strangely inspiring on yet another expectation side-stepping LP.

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Sturgill Simpson, David Hayter