Sound and Fury
Sturgill Simpson once said that with a voice like his, he could only ever be a country crooner. I’m glad he re-assessed. I love me some Sturgill Simpson, I do not love me some country music. I first came across him when he opened for Jason Isbell at the Ampitheater, a wonderful outdoor venue, in Tuscaloosa, AL, during my ill-fated Alabama adventures. He had just released A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, but he was about as country that night as Isbell is. But he was louder than Isbell & The 400 Unit, showing off his chops with scorching guitar licks and an understated sense of humour.
He does not fit into the Nashville scene. Not at all. Staunchly left of centre, like Isbell, Simpson was disgusted with the CMA in 2017 when it instructed journalists at that year’s Awards show in Nashville to not ask about the Las Vegas Massacre (doesn’t that feel so long ago), or the NRA or guns. He busked outside, with a sign in his guitar case reading ‘Struggling Country Singer’ in protest.
Sound and Fury is an angry, pulsing, pounding album. It is the soundtrack to an accompanying Netflix anime show. Whatever, that part is less important right now. Stylistically, Sound and Fury is all over the place, from stomping rockers, to 80s synth work outs. You’d think this would be a bad idea. But, it’s not. At least not in his hands.
It starts off à la Kiss’s ‘Detroit Rock City’ with the revving of a car engine, the radio being flipped around, passing over Alex Jones and his rampant fucking idiocy, before settling on the opening track, ‘Ronin,’ perhaps the most appropriately-named song on this album. A ronin, of course, is a masterless samurai, and Simpson is about as staunchly independent an artist as there is out there. From the instrumental opener, with towering guitar work, we segue into the chugging bass line of ‘Remember to Breathe’:
I go out late at night just to see what I can find
Stayin’ in the shadows where the light don’t ever shine
Having one-way conversations with the darkness in my mind
He does all the talking ’cause I’m the quiet kind
The entire album is sequenced like an 80s radio station, as ‘Remember to Breathe’ doesn’t even so much as finish before it crashes into ‘Sing Along’ which is a pulsating synth workout, though that synth is strangled by Simpson’s distorted guitar riffs. This song gets to end before we crash into track 4, ‘A Good Look’, which sounds like a 1970s country-music TV show song (like he finished A Sailor’s Guide with ‘Call to Arms’), if it had been fed through Prince. Simpson co-wrote this track with John Prine, which seems rather bizarre. We get a early 80s synth-disco beat, synth pulses, and Simpson’s voice over top, the apocalyptic feeling carrying along:
I write my poems in the dirt with an oily rag
I have to wear a gas mask just so I don’t gag
I got a SOCOM Scout and 20 extra mags
And a couple severed heads in my bug-out bag
This is perhaps the most appropriately entitled album of 2019. Simpson is full of rage and fury, the sound is loud and brash. The hybridity of the music, part 80s synth work out/part 90s guitar lesson, shouldn’t work. It should make this album unlistenable. But, such is Simpson’s songwriting mastery that this is sheer brilliance.
Simpson allegedly once told his wife that he’d do a bluegrass album of covers entirely chosen by her. I presume that will be his next move?