Well, this is something. Ever since Sturgill Simpson signed his first major label contract with Atlantic Records, the country music world has been itching to hear the fruits of the pairing. Today we finally have our answer with his third solo album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. As can now be expected with Sturgill, this album takes significant risks and shows a cosmic shift in sound from his previous release. This album may overstep the bounds of country, but it still is great music nonetheless.
First things first, this album is not a “country album”. There are country songs on it, Sturgill’s delivery and approach is country, and the outlaw spirit is there. But, this is simply a music album. It does what bro-country and pop-country claim to do, which is blend influences from different genres. One song might have a loud horn section mixing it up, another a screaming guitar, and another steel and twang. Even though they take great leaps and bounds, this album still finds its roots in country. Therefore, this is the shining example of mixing genres that the clowns on the radio dream about. It isn’t “country”, but I don’t think it would fit in any other genre either. Songs like “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)” and “Keep It Between The Lines” have such prominent horns that you feel like you are listening to a jazz record. Many forget though that during the “Nashville Sound” era of country music, strings and horns were common on country records. “Keep It Between The Lines” specifically sounds like a throwback to that era. “In Bloom” is a very interesting and unique take on the Nirvana song that takes it in a whole new direction. Sturgill has a knack for making songs from other genres into trippy country songs, and this is no exception. The criticism of the “scene followers” in the song comes through much more efficiently with this version. As for actual rock songs, “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)” and “Call To Arms” give you a kick into an extra gear. I know what you’re thinking… where are the country songs? Well, “Breakers Roar” is more of a singer-songwriter ballad, but has more of the honest emotion that country music commands, and “Oh Sarah” is an absolutely haunting ballad that is one of my favorites from the album. The best song, in my opinion, is “Sea Stories”. If you are looking for the honky-tonk outlaw sound that dominated High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, this is your jam. Many people who are turned off by Sturgill’s foray into new sounds will find comforting solace in this tune. If there is a push to country radio, “Sea Stories”, “Keep It Between The Lines”, and “Oh Sarah” would make an interesting trio of singles.
Sturgill Simpson doesn’t make music just to meet an album release cycle. His first album, High Top Mountain, was written for his grandpa. It was a musical tribute to his roots and upbringing. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music was an adventure. He was exploring the different ideas and sonic sounds that could make country music modern, yet retain its roots. A Sailor’s Guide To Life was written for his son. Sturgill became a father for the first time last year, and has expressed that this album was written as sort of a message (or guide, if you will) to his son as he grows up. This alludes to why many of the songs take on an aura of advice-giving and deep contemplating. In reality, each album that Sturgill makes is a concept record. It isn’t meant to be listened to by one single track on the radio or as a greatest hits compilation. Each album has a story, a theme, and a message. That is artistry that has to be respected, especially in today’s superficial world.
Truth be told, not every song on A Sailor’s Guide To Life is my cup of tea. I’ve simply never been a huge fan of horns, but there are exceptions. However, that is a matter of taste. In the grand scheme of things, A Sailor’s Guide To Life is a fantastic album that makes you think and tap your toes at the same time. It isn’t country; it’s something much bigger. Sturgill has created an album that manages to break down the boundaries of country music, yet keep the spirit of the genre alive. I recommend this album for the effort and vision that went into it alone, besides the fact that there are some genuinely great songs on it. Sturgill Simpson is proving to be the modern day outlaw who does things his way, even if he doesn’t claim to be.
Standout Tracks: “Sea Stories”, “Oh Sarah”, “Breakers Roar”, “Keep It Between The Lines”, “Brace For Impact (Live a Little)”