Sail on, Sailor

“Yeah, he’s really great,” so quoth the inestimable Michael Lavorgna, noise rock/art rock/out jazz music fan, editor of and all around fine human being when talking about Sturgill Simpson’s latest record, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. “I just love that cover of `In Bloom.’” I could feel my head nodding in both directions at once: Yes, that I too love it, and No, in disbelief that Michael was so hooked. A mutual admission that we both pre-ordered the blue vinyl online brought big smiles and more enthusing.

Rarely has a third record had more built-in pressure surrounding it than has Sturgill’s third long player, his first on major label Atlantic Records. His last, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, cut live to tape in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb, was so united by Sturgill’s Waylon Jenningesque voice and cosmic cowboy attitude that that any influence that worked could and would be a part of his music. A cover of 80’s Britpop band When in Rome worked as did a trucker tune, “Long White Line.” The live show, complete with hysterical hipsters who’d never been fans of anything country, was Lynyrd Skynyrd playing in odd time signatures with Estonian guitarist Laur Joamets by his side playing fills on the slide and creating something very familiar yet very fresh. On both record and onstage it was clear that in Simpson’s music, barriers were meant to be broken. It was high concept yet wonderfully honky tonk. It was rock. It was country. It was fearless and confident. It was very new and original—a sadly uncommon occurrence these days. The man clearly had ahold of something. Something you might call prog country.

All of which makes Sailor’s Guide such a wonderful tour de force. Instead of buckling under the weight of equalling or even topping Metamodern, Simpson has upped the ante, first with “Sugar Daddy,” the buzzy rock theme song to the HBO series, Vinyl. Then came the unexpectedly quiet voice, pedal steel and fiddle version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” A fair number of artists today will dabble in Nirvana covers when playing live but few will take the next step and record them. Billed as a concept record dedicated to his new son, A Sailor’s Guide makes its ambitions clear from the opening number, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” which opens with ocean sounds, buzzing synths, and plaintive solo piano before the first words, “Hello my son welcome to earth,” ring out. Morphing into a grand ballad with string crescendos, it suddenly jolts into a soul jive number led by the Dap-Kings, the house band for Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, that comes complete with horns, tambourines and a B-3. Hard to give writing and arranging like this too much credit. Equally potent is another neo-soul number, albeit one with a pedal steel and a trucker’s tune title, “Keep It Between the Lines.” Having exceeded all expectations with Sailor’s Guide, it’s gonna be fun to see what the next twist in the Sturgill saga brings.

Anton's picture

Three great albums in a row!