Metamodern Sounds In Country Music

Sturgill Simpson

Top Mountain / Thirty Tigers, 2014

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


There are times when it seems to me that the only real stamp of quality you need when considering an album in the Country / Americana realm is this: was it produced by Dave Cobb? If it was, you can pretty much count on intelligent, original, heartfelt songs framed by production that’s retro and clever but never obtrusive; in fact it’s sometimes so subtle you have to pay close attention to catch all the great choices that keep getting made.

Still, I have my doubts about how much of that was on Sturgill Simpson’s mind when he was putting together Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. He was probably more concerned about coming up with a sophomore release that had a chance of surpassing the virtual Waylon Jennings tribute album that was his 2013 debut High Top Mountain. No worries there, though; from the beginning Simpson has been something of a musical unicorn—an artist with a natural affinity for the very specific genre of old-time outlaw country, but absolutely no patience for anyone who tries to put him in a stylistic box. His music has always been too bold and rangy and stubbornly off-beat for that. (Evidence of the latter trait includes his more recent urge to put out two albums’ worth of bluegrass covers of his own songs, because… well, because he could.)

Opener “Turtles All The Way” sets the bar for iconoclasm high as Simpson casually quick-cuts from Biblical imagery of Jesus, the devil and a lake of fire to visions of Buddha and the “glowing light within,” to “a gateway in our mind” that leads to a place “where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all of your pain.” The descriptor “cosmic country” is useful here, but honestly doesn’t even begin to parse this stuff; this song is pure Sturgill, a late-night cable preacher’s acid trip. Also, it has bells. BELLS, people.

It’s not like Simpson has abandoned Waylon entirely, though, or ever would. “Life Of Sin” follows with an old-school barroom boogie about a guy who’s drinking and smoking himself silly trying to forget the woman who both made him crazy and gave him all his songs. Echo-drenched as it is, the easygoing, fun-loving sway of “Living The Dream” suggests another musical cousin: Jimmy Buffett, at least if the latter ever featured wobbly, greasy slide guitar solos. “Voices” finds Sturgill turning philosophical again even as he turns a series of clever phrases, e.g. “A picture’s worth a thousand words, but a word ain’t worth a dime.” my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A pair of fascinating covers occupies the middle of the album like a flashing neon sign reading “CHECK OUT MY RANGE.” First, Simpson tackles Burford Abner’s classic early-country road song “Long White Line,” which takes a subject that’s become familiar over the years—the lonely trucker—and invests an otherwise bouncy tune with writerly detail and a rich undercurrent of melancholy. Then he turns your expectations inside out and upside down by reinventing ’80s popsters When In Rome’s pulsing hit “The Promise” as a sky-hugging country weeper. I mean, dude.

Assuming the songwriting chair again, Simpson delivers an upbeat gospel-tinged country-rocker (“A Little Light Within”), another metaphysical meditation (“Just Let Go”), and a closer that feels like everything that came before rolled up in one blazing fattie. Opening with weird tape effects, “It Ain’t All Flowers” moves into an eerie, atmospheric acoustic-electric fugue in support of another introspective lyric (“Cleaning out the darkest corners of my mind / Taking all my full circles, and making straight lines / Been getting to the bottom of the bottom getting to me / Holding up the mirror to everything I don’t want to see…”). As a fuzzed-out electric guitar asserts itself more and more and Simpson picks up some growl in his vocals, we’re edging into Southern Rock territory—which fits the song beautifully. Around 4:40 we go into full freakout mode again with more tape effects and distorted riffing, as if to prove that country boys like to screw around in the studio just as much as Pink Floyd or Tame Impala.

Still, the oddest choice made here might be to leave the actual final song—a hidden track called “Pan Bowl”—as such. It’s a gorgeous acoustic story-song delivered with real affection and enthusiasm, and one that clearly means a lot to Simpson, seeing as how he named his publishing imprint Pan Bowl Music… but he doesn’t make the song an official part of the album?

I honestly don’t know what Sturgill was thinking there, but it’s clear he is a thinker. He’s also, in a word, excitable, and not just in the way he skips across genres and subject matter like a turntable in an earthquake—his vocals can be unpredictable, too. Sometimes he’s cruising through a song in second gear and all of a sudden his vocals double-shift into fourth and it knocks you back for a second—but it always works. Sturgill just seems to be a man who takes pleasure in surprising his audience.

Metamodern Sounds In Country Music lives up to its lofty title, a genuine cosmic-country rocket ride through religion, philosophy, self-interrogations and barroom singalongs, captained by a larger-than-life character steeped in the history of his music and people, but determined to create something fresh and new rather than repeat the past he clearly reveres. Sturgill Simpson is a genuine original in a musical realm that needs them more than ever today.

Rating: A-

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