The RCS Review: Sturgill Simpson’s ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’

From our music guru JH:

There have been a million bands in the history of rock and roll.  Of that million, probably one percent of those bands have released an album of any notoriety or greatness.  The good news is: Sturgill Simpson is one of those guys.  The bad news: “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” is not that album.  Simpson made a masterpiece of modern country music back in 2014 with “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”.  “Metamodern” was a perfect blend of psychedelia, modern production techniques, and straight ahead Country music.  Most importantly it had songs.  They were strong and had a strange kind of depth that still lets the listener discover something new with each listen.  The album was put together in such a way that each song fit together like a puzzle piece and seemed to communicate a clear and coherent thought.  That’s what I think is wrong with the new album.

After listening, I have to wonder if all that time on the road has limited his ability to put the kind of energy into his songwriting that was so apparent on the last record.  We begin with “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” which was pretty promising.  It sounds a little Roy Orbison and turns into a Stax like soul song.  But not really.  He’s got the vocal ability to throw down but this song is a prime example of what I think went wrong.  Two incomplete pieces of music put together to fill an album.  “Breakers Roar” might be the strongest song on the album.  Following the nautical theme of the album’s title, it’s a nice, dreamy ballad that would’ve fit nicely on “Metamodern Sounds”.  “Keep It Between the Lines” reminded me of the Memphis sound filtered through Peter Gabriel’s “Steam”.  As I was navigating Atlanta traffic, I heard the lyrics “Don’t sweat the small stuff..” as “I kicked the habit…”  Maybe that’s just me.  The rest of the songs are just kind of unremarkable.  There’s just something missing.  What’s not missing here is a strange cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”.  I’m not sure why it’s here.  The arrangement totally castrates the rawk and recklessness of the original.  I like to think if someone is covering a song, there are two explanations:  your cover redefines the original or you’re just a fan.  In this case, I think it’s the latter and quite possibly more filler.

At the end of the day, I’m a Sturgill Simpson fan.  I’ve been in attendance at not one but two disastrous live shows and still recommended and attended a couple more.  I think he’s as an important an artist as there is in his field of practice right now.  Unless you’re the Beatles, every album can’t be “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver”.  Perhaps this album will buy him some time off the road and we can all be rewarded with something as strong as “Metamodern” one more time.  For now, there are other places to go to hear groundbreaking soul with a touch of retro.  I give this album five shots of NyQuil and a half a sleeve of Oreo’s.

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  • Jeff05/09/2016 - 8:31 AM

    I agree the album over all is bleh but I have to disagree with you about “In Bloom.” I was never a big fan of the Nirvana original but really like Sturigill’s cover. You are correct in that he covered it because he is a big fan. There is an article/interview out there where he explains how much that song/that Nirvana album meant to him in the 7th grade. He even explains how he misremembered the lyrics and wrote a letter to the Cobain estate to get permission to use the incorrect lyric. Sturgill added the “to love someone” lyric in the chorus.ReplyCancel

  • PLF III05/09/2016 - 11:05 AM

    Album is a bit all over the place. Disagree as well as I find his covers spot on.ReplyCancel

  • MSM05/09/2016 - 6:36 PM

    I actually enjoy how this album departs a bit from his last and think it makes sense in his growing catalog of albums. To each their own.ReplyCancel

  • PBB05/09/2016 - 8:48 PM

    I couldn’t agree more. I listened all the way through twice. What I liked so much about him was he struck a real authentic country chord. Almost a soulful throwback. He went away from that completely which is fine but also disappointing.ReplyCancel

  • Townes05/10/2016 - 9:15 AM

    Hot sauce and music reviews, this is why we come to the siteReplyCancel

  • Great Lakes Prep05/13/2016 - 7:05 PM

    Couldn’t disagree more. Give a listen to his interview with Marc Maron on WTF and I’ll think you’ll gain a new appreciation for what this album is.ReplyCancel

  • AC05/25/2016 - 12:24 PM

    It definitely deviates from his “alt/modern/contemporary country” what have you sound on his first albums. If people were expecting more of the same I can understand being disappointed. I think he set out with the intent of doing something different. The Dap-Kings are on 5 of the album’s songs; the sound they bring to the new album is nowhere to be seen on Metamodern (I don’t even thing there is brass/woodwind on Metamodern). If we stop trying to fit him in a country mold we might be able to enjoy it.ReplyCancel

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