The press has anointed a number of country-music saviors in recent years, and out of all of them, Sturgill Simpson seemed most primed to ascend to that particular throne following the release of his 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Operating independently of the Nashville machine, he sang like the second coming of Waylon and played tunes as ragged and genuine as Willie and Merle, with just a hint of psychedelia to keep things unpredictable. The trouble is that these days “saving country” doesn’t just mean making good country music; it involves rebuking Nashville’s glitzy bro-country culture and somehow throwing the entire industry into a magical time warp back to the good ol’ days when the Outlaws reigned supreme.
Simpson is apparently smart enough to realize that, when using these criteria, country music is beyond saving, at least by just one guy. So with his follow-up to Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, he smartly doesn’t even bother trying. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is an astoundingly well-realized, consistently surprising, and mostly brilliant genre-bending experiment that’s as bound to piss off everyone hoping for Honky Tonk Heroes Part 2 as it is to delight those with a broader set of expectations.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth isn’t devoid of twang by any means. Simpson is still such a vocal dead ringer for Waylon Jennings that it’s almost spooky, and there’s plenty of pedal steel by Nashville vet Dan Dugmore. But the influences are far too diverse, and instrumentation too ambitious, to call it a true country album. Simpson ditched Dave Cobb just as he was becoming the hottest producer in Nashville thanks to his work on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and hit albums by Jamey Johnson and Jason Isbell, two other recently hyped country stars, and instead self-produced the new album, allowing himself free reign to experiment.
The album’s opening song, “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” establishes both its lyrical through line—a life lessons-filled letter to Simpson’s son, who turns two in June, built on various seafaring metaphors—and its musical sense of adventure. A foreboding synth drone cedes to a stately piano line and then to lush classical strings as Simpson himself enters the mix in full-on crooner mode, gushing with sentimentality: “Hello, my son, welcome to Earth/Might not be my last, but you’ll always be my first.” Just as the orchestral swells begin to verge on melodrama, the song turns on a dime into a strutting R&B workout, complete with honking horn section.
The strings, horns, and pronounced R&B influence stick around for the remainder of the album, which is a very good thing for two reasons. First, they allow Simpson to explore new musical avenues with authenticity and aplomb, like on “Keep It Between the Lines,” a barn-burning soul song with enough dirty guitar licks to, along with Simpson’s casual vocal delivery, keep it from becoming just another genre exercise. Or on “Breakers Roar,” compositionally one of the more country-inflected tunes on the album, where the string section lends Simpson’s quavering vocals an emotional heft it might have lacked with a more basic instrumental setup.
The strings are always tasteful, never gloppy, and expertly arranged and mixed, melding seamlessly with the pedal steel and guitar. Touches, like the gentle pizzicatos on the pleading “Oh Sarah,” endow the proceedings with a level of beauty and refinement typically beyond the grasp of mere country singers. Meanwhile, the horns, courtesy of the well-traveled Dap-Kings, are tight, crackling, and genuinely funky. Lest you think Simpson owes his success here entirely to his newfangled backing ensemble, however, there’s “Sea Stories,” the album’s most overtly countryish track, which, though traditional instrumentation—all bright acoustic strumming and soaring pedal steel—and Simpson’s travelogue lyrics, becomes its most immediately catchy one as well.
The first half of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth wraps up with an understated yet very memorable balladic reimagining of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” on which Simpson somehow manages to turn Kurt Cobain anthem of caustic vitriol and disillusionment to an earnest expression of adolescent nostalgia. Once it fades out, Simpson has a potential classic on his hands. Unfortunately, he falters just a bit on the back half. Lead single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” is a terrific, foreboding rock song for three and a half minutes before jamming on pointlessly for another few, just throbbing along without any worthwhile instrumental interplay or anything else to earn its lengthy runtime.
Later, Simpson finally overreaches in his genre experimentation on the closing “Call to Arms,” a hyperactive, politically minded soul rave-up that falls flat due to Simpson’s failure to come up with a distinguishable melody; he instead delivers a strained, almost literally one-note vocal. But even beyond the chances Simpson takes, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth remains a sonically stunning album.